French NGO challenges the use of facial recognition before the CNIL

On September 24th, 2022, the French NGO ‘La Quadrature du Net’ challenged the use of technology-driven tools by French police forces before the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL – French DPA). By means of three separate complaints, the NGO wants to raise awareness about what it calls the ‘technopolice’, which amounts to the police using methods that may pose risks to privacy. These complaints follow a petition published by LQDN which collected 15 248 signatures.

Three techniques have been highlighted in particular by LQDN: 

The NGO first criticised what it considers to be a massive use of video surveillance systems by the Ministry of the Interior, although this technology does not involve biometrics or artificial intelligence. 

Another complaint bears on the ‘secure electronic documents’ filing system (TES) used by the Ministry of the Interior to centralise people’s identity documents, be they identity cards or passports. 

Last but not least, the NGO is challenging the use of facial recognition by the police for identification purposes. In LQDN’s view this technology lacks a proper ‘legal basis’ to be deployed. 

The NGO claims that 1680 facial recognition searches are carried out every day, which involves comparing the images taken with those in the ‘traitement des antécédents judiciaires’ (TAJ) database, but that they are conducted “without any specific legal framework”. LQDN states that facial recognition searches are undertaken to achieve three main purposes: 

  • to identify an individual during an identity check, 
  • to identify an individual who appears on images collected during an on-going investigation or by intelligence services,
  • to detect a person tracked by intelligence services via various images. 

This lawsuit is just another step in the legal conflict which pits La Quadrature du Net against the Ministry of the Interior regarding the use of Facial Recognition in relation to the TAJ database. Indeed, the Conseil d’Etat released a decision on April 26th, 2022 in which it found, contrary to what LQDN had claimed, that the use of facial recognition as provided for by article R 40-26 of the Code of Criminal Procedure for preventing and repressing crime in relation to the TAJ database was ‘absolutely necessary’ and proportionate to the aim pursued. 

Furthermore, La Quadrature du Net also filed a lawsuit jointly with Privacy International before the CNIL last year, requesting that the French DPA investigate Clearview AI, a company which extracts and stores biometric templates from the open web, including social media accounts, without asking for consent whatsoever. LQDN’s challenge proved to be successful since the CNIL required the company to delete any biometric data collected which belong to French citizens.  

On a wider scale, La Quadrature du Net also took part in the reclaim your face campaign which advocates for a ban on Biometric mass surveillance systems

This lawsuit is therefore part of a broader climate of distrust towards biometric data processing carried out by law enforcement authorities for investigation purposes. 

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