Two Years Ago Terror Struck. Now They're Unsure of the Response

(Bloomberg) -- On the evening of July 14, 2016, a terrorist driving a truck mowed down 86 people and wounded hundreds more who had gathered to watch fireworks on the beach promenade in the southern French city of Nice.

In the aftermath of the bloody Bastille Day attack, local politicians promised shocked residents tighter security to prevent another tragedy. Two years later, the Mediterranean municipality has turned itself into a testing ground for surveillance technology. Yet none has been fully deployed.

Two Years Ago Terror Struck. Now They're Unsure of the Response

Growing opposition to cutting-edge security highlights how -- in France at least -- the use of systems like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to fight crime is on a collision course with advocates of data privacy. Technology relying on cameras to collect and analyze information about people’s behavior are already in use in countries like China and Mexico, yet they may not find easy acceptance in Europe.

“We’re fighting to protect our right to a private life,” opposition Nice city official Patrick Allemand said by phone. “We hope the privacy watchdog will realize that these so-called safety systems are actually trapping people in their fears.”

Suspicious Activity

Shortly after the Nice massacre, the city encouraged citizens to report suspicious activity using an app called “Reporty,” designed to send geolocalization data and videos to authorities. This past March, France’s data-protection authority CNIL recommended the app be shut down after deciding it was overly intrusive and a risk to those reporting crimes.

Mayor Christian Estrosi hit back, tweeting that security initiatives had fallen victim to individual liberties “without a real explanation.”

Now, the city is getting ready to test another surveillance tool that some critics liken to the one used by Tom Cruise’s police officer character in the sci-fi movie “Minority Report.”

It’s “Orwellian,” Felix Treguer, a researcher and co-founder of the data privacy website La Quadrature du Net, wrote in a blog post. The Nice project constitutes a “headlong rush toward social-control technologies,” he said.

Linked Cameras

The data-collection system called “Safe City” was partly developed by French defense company Thales SA. It has similarities to one the contractor says has been successfully operating in Mexico for seven years. Using cameras able to read license plates, linked to police patrols and traffic supervision tools, the Nice network won’t go as far as methods used in China. That country is upgrading its vast domestic surveillance system using facial recognition, among other techniques.

Two Years Ago Terror Struck. Now They're Unsure of the Response

Still, facial recognition will be used once a year in Nice, for simulations of catastrophic events such as natural disasters. Participants will be asked to give their consent, according to a spokeswoman for Thales. The project will also develop “predictive capabilities” based on data from sources including social media.

“There’s a push to support French champions in the surveillance industry in the face of U.S. and Chinese competition,” Treguer from La Quadrature said in an interview. The Asian country is on track to represent almost half of the $17.3 billion global video surveillance market by year end.

Many urban centers in France, including Paris, already use security cameras, while facial recognition tools were recently introduced in the capital’s airports. Coverage isn’t nearly as dense as in the U.K.

Leaked Contract

If Safe City is successful in Nice, Thales wants to deploy it elsewhere. It’s already planning tests in the Paris business district of La Defense. But the plan could be derailed. The southern French city’s contract with Thales and partners was signed in June, leaked by La Quadrature and is now under fire from opponents. CNIL was asked to review it.

A municipal spokesman said “Safe City” would be tested for three years with no financial commitment. Another one developed by energy-provider Engie SA will be adopted by nearby Marseille starting in 2020. Engie also tested a solution in Nice to coordinate data from cameras, traffic lights and retractable parking posts.

Allemand, the Nice opposition councilor, said he didn’t vote against these experiments even though he’s hostile to their long-term deployment. “In the post-terrorist-attack context, it would be hard for people to understand how we could resist something that promises extra safety,” he said.

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