June 17, 2020 / 4:41 PM / 25 days ago

French watchdog warns against COVID-19 smart surveillance

PARIS (Reuters) - The use of a new range of surveillance cameras to check adherence to rules in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak risks undermining the fabric of democracy, France’s data privacy watchdog CNIL said on Wednesday.

Known in Europe for being a staunch defender of privacy rights, the CNIL said that while the technology was well-meaning in its intent, the artificial intelligence empowered surveillance falls short of respecting Europe’s stringent laws on data protection.

These include the obligation for companies or public authorities to seek consent from people they would film to check the wearing of masks or that safe distance is being adhered to.

Any citizen has the right to oppose the use of his or her image under EU-wide regulation.

“Their uncontrolled development poses the risk of generalizing a feeling of surveillance among citizens... which could be detrimental to the proper functioning of our democratic society,” the CNIL said of surveillance cameras.

Surveillance cameras appeared during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, with state-owned public transport firm RATP teaming up startup Datakalab, to assess the proportion of travelers wearing masks at the Paris central station of Chatelet-Les Halles.

The three-month experiment started on May 6 and comprised six cameras in its first phase, RATP said, adding that it fully respects privacy laws as images are neither used or stored.

RATP said it temporarily suspended the experiment on June 12 to address CNIL’s concerns.

The city of Cannes on the French Riviera has used the same technology to check the wearing of masks in three of its markets.

Datakalab says on its website that anyone can exercise their right to oppose being filmed by shaking their head. The CNIL said in its statement that solution was “impractical”.

The CNIL also said thermal scanners, now used by companies like e-commerce giant Amazon and Paris airports operator ADP, may capture images of individuals, which should be treated as personal data.

Amazon said in an emailed statement that its temperature checks were not mandatory and it fully respected privacy laws.

“No data or information is collected and no monitoring is carried out,” Amazon said.

ADP also said it did not collect data, adding its systems had been reviewed by CNIL, which demanded that people’s images be blurred.

Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle

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