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French police can collect race and sex life data

The right of gendarmes to collect individuals’ sensitive personal data such as religion or sexual orientation came into force this year and, unsurprisingly, provoked controversy.

The application in question

A new app, Gendnotes, is meant to allow gendarmes to take notes on incidents and to simplify conservation and transmission of data. The app was permitted by a government decree in February. The controversial aspect is that, where “necessary” and “proportional”, gendarmes may note a person’s “supposed racial and ethnic origins”, political, philosophical or religious opinions, union membership, health, and even sex life and sexual orientation.

Read more: how attitudes to inequality have changed in France

It comes in a legal context in France in which compiling files on race or religion is considered especially sensitive. Article 1 of the Constitution specifies “equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion”. In theory, only certain limited exceptions are allowed.

As a safeguard, the decree specified that the details must only be noted in a “free comment area” on the app and the information should not be used to collect data on a particular category of people, such as Muslims or trade unionists. In addition, the data should only be saved on the app for three months, or in some circumstances a maximum of one year.

Read more: France debates legality of collecting ethnicity data

A human rights risk?

Human rights activists and lawyers have expressed doubts. For example, it is up to the gendarme to decide if the details are “necessary”, which some say means there is a risk of them noting it “just in case” it may prove useful later on. Furthermore, the law allows officers to share the data with judicial or administrative authorities, such as prefects and mayors, where it may end up in files for longer periods.

Sharing with international bodies as part of judicial cooperation is also allowed. The French are wary about the creeping use of personal data, such as health status – as in the new StopCovid contact-tracing app – or of facial image collection. Facial recognition CCTV technology has been tested by some police forces but is not allowed for day-to-day use.

Gendnotes allows people’s images to be saved but the decree says it has no system of facial recognition based on them. Even so, this has raised concerns about whether the photos could be used later for such purposes.

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