French debate on facial recognition

After trial’s 100% success rate

24 July 2019
By Connexion journalist

The use of facial recognition in police video surveillance is under consideration by the government after a trial this year had a reported 100% success rate.

A Nice mairie source told Con­nexion that a trial during the Carnival in February successfully identified eight people who had volunteered to give their photos.

It did not flag up anyone who was not part of the trial.

The system, based on software from a Monaco company, even picked up a person wearing a disguise and someone else whose photo was 40 years old.

A report has been sent to the government but official results are yet to be published.

Nice is the city with the most cameras.

Grégory Pezet, head of the video-surveillance team, said: “We have 2,700 cameras but we don’t have 2,700 operators. Artificial intelligence means the camera can work on its own and pass information to us.”

On a recent visit to Nice, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said: “The important thing is that we can open the debate.

 “I have no opinion on this issue but everything that can contribute to people’s  security is going in the right direction, while at the same time ensuring that individual freedoms are not put at risk.” He added that it was possible that such a system might have helped in the case of an attack in Lyon in May in which 14 people were injured by an exploding parcel.

“It was thanks to the video that we were able to find the alleged perpetrator and arrest him,” he said. “But the job was done frame by frame, with police officers behind each of the screens. Facial recognition can help to speed things up.”

Facial recognition is used in several countries, including China, the UK and the US, although a recent report by university researchers cast doubt on the efficacy of the British system. It said most of the people it identifies as being dangerous individuals on police files turn out not to be.

Police video surveillance started on a significant scale in 2008, under Nicolas Sarkozy. In 10 years, Nice’s municipal police have developed the biggest system but other cities, such as Marseille, Lyon and Paris, have similar ones.

Debate continues on the usefulness of the cameras and the surveillance centres where the images are studied.

Some claim they deter crime and also help police to act faster when necessary.

Saint-Etienne, in the Massif Central, tripled its cameras after its mayor was elected in 2014 on a platform of being tough on crime. Last year its Police Natio­nale stated that violent crime dropped 21% from 2016 to 2017 and there were 1,000 police interventions in 2017 linked to the cameras.

Critics say cameras are pricey: €8,000 to €15,000 each, plus maintenance costs and operator salaries.

Some see them as an invasion of privacy. They also point to the fact that in spite of the cameras in Nice, there was a  major terrorist attack there in 2016.

  • Facial recognition technology is being used more and more in automatic passport lanes at airports. Paris airports have tripled the number of such lanes, compared to last year, to 102. The new Orly 3 building which opened in April is equipped with them.
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