‘Big Brother is watching you’? France to use ‘smart’ cameras to check how many transport passengers are wearing masks

‘Big Brother is watching you’? France to use ‘smart’ cameras to check how many transport passengers are wearing masks

The French government has been accused of dystopian designs after authorizing the use of surveillance cameras to tally how many commuters are masking up.

A new decree has given public transport operators the power to use “intelligent video to measure the rate of mask-wearing on transport.” France’s data protection watchdog, CNIL, said the “smart” cameras will be used on buses, subways and trains to “observe” whether Covid-19 rules mandating facial coverings are being obeyed. However, the government claims that the cameras will only tabulate how many people are wearing masks, without identifying individuals.

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Notably, a similar initiative was proposed back in December, but the government shelved the idea after CNIL said it risked “undermining the proper functioning of our democratic society” and that there was no clear legal framework under which it could be justified. The agency said that it decided to approve the surveillance program the second time around because the government had clearly stated its purpose and that the cameras will not “process biometric data” and therefore do not “constitute a facial recognition device.”

The decision was met with fierce opposition by civil rights groups. La Quadrature du Net, which defends digital freedoms, condemned the decree as an “authoritarian offensive.” The group also argued that surveillance was a clear violation of French law, as well as EU regulations regarding the processing of personal data. 

There was similar outrage on social media, with some comments including the hashtag “#BigBrotherIsWatchingYou.”

One unimpressed observer joked that the government seemed eager to ensure people were masking up, but there were no cameras to “unmask” pickpocketers that “swarm” the subway. 

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, France has imposed some of the strictest measures designed to reduce the spread of the virus. 

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that restrictions could be re-imposed in the coming days in a bid to curb France’s rising Covid-19 infection rate. 

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