In victory for privacy activists, France is banned from using drones to enforce coronavirus rules
By Rick Noack,
PARIS — France’s privacy watchdog has banned the use of drone cameras to enforce coronavirus restrictions and for other law enforcement purposes, marking a victory for groups arguing that the pandemic has given rise to excessive surveillance.
France’s Interior Ministry had conducted drone flights “outside of any legal framework,” the privacy watchdog said in its strongly worded rebuke, which was released Thursday.
France imposed some of Europe’s toughest measures in response to the virus last year and initially deployed helicopters and drones to monitor adherence to the rules. But privacy activists feared that the drone monitoring could serve as a trial run for more expansive surveillance programs. The concerns prompted a legal challenge and a ruling by France’s highest court in May to suspend the practices in Paris.
Privacy groups said French authorities carried on despite the ruling, continuing to deploy drones at protests.
The decision by France’s privacy watchdog — which significantly ups the stakes for the French government as it applies nationally — comes amid a broader tug-of-war between privacy activists and authorities in Europe over how to police coronavirus restrictions. That debate has played out worldwide in recent months, as leaders and authorities in a number of countries were criticized of using the pandemic as a pretext to expand their powers. But Europe’s extensive privacy laws have put government critics in a stronger position than the one activists have found themselves in elsewhere.
After a Belgian police force said last month that it would use drones with heat cameras to monitor end-of-year festivities in people’s homes, privacy activists rallied against the plans. Belgium’s college of public prosecutors subsequently ruled that drones should not be used to crack down on violations of coronavirus rules, even though they can still be deployed to assess crowd sizes from afar.
In Germany and Austria, privacy concerns have largely revolved around police officers’ access to private homes to enforce coronavirus rules. Both countries have a high burden of proof that’s required for officials to be able to enter homes, and lawmakers in Germany quickly rushed to reassure citizens that this wouldn’t change. After criticism, Austria’s government abandoned an attempt to change the law.
In France, authorities have faced multiple setbacks over privacy concerns since the pandemic began. Last summer, the Parisian transport authority suspended an effort that monitored whether Metro riders were wearing masks, using camera-equipped AI technology. France’s privacy watchdog had criticized the experiment, arguing that it risked “a feeling of general surveillance among citizens” that could “undermine the proper functioning of our democratic society.”
Even though the cameras had been installed for experimental purposes and were not used to impose fines, the watchdog criticized the fact that there was no regulatory framework that would allow people to opt out of the footage.
The watchdog’s ruling on drones is based on similar concerns.
It means that officials will also no longer be allowed to use drones to monitor protesters until the watchdog’s concerns have been resolved — a stance that could put the authority in direct opposition with a government proposal to expand their use. The proposal is part of a broader draft security bill that has been fiercely debated in France for weeks, with critics viewing it as a serious threat to civil liberties in the country.
The draft bill, given the initial green light in the French National Assembly last year, is set to be discussed in the French Senate later this month.