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From Le Monde diplomatique: The supervised city

From Le Monde diplomatique

In French town halls, management is set by algorithm. Outrider Nizza leaves the arms company Thales the data collection.

video surveillance stairwell and office

Always nice under observation Photo: Reuters

On December 28, 1948, the Dominican monk and logician Dominique Dubarle published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde one of the first critical articles about the new computers that were developed in the US during the Second World War. In it Dubarle tries to estimate the political consequences of this new technology. Anticipating surveillance capitalism, Dubarle warns that growing data storage and processing capacity would lead to "the emergence of an extraordinary political Leviathan".

70 years later, Dubrov's vision has become reality with the "smart city". After the USA, China, the Gulf States and Great Britain, the age of administration has now also begun in French town halls by algorithm. And as Dubarle predicted, information technologies in public space are used to monitor, analyze, anticipate and control flows of people and goods. In addition to the provision of data and the intelligent control of street lighting or garbage disposal, the Smart City is above all the security. Therefore, the industry speaks only of the "safe city", the safe city.

In June 2018, the city of Nice, with a consortium of 15 companies under the leadership of the defense and security group Thales, agreed on a test phase for the Safe City. How deeply the doctrines from the world of the military have already penetrated into the administrative language, show the authorities communications.

There is talk of "ever greater threats" and "climate-related risks" are placed on the same level as "human risks" (crime or terrorism). Meanwhile, questions about their economic, social or political causes are not even asked, let alone discussed possible measures.

Police with powers as in late absolutism

Instead, "situations" are evaluated on a per-rod basis, "to anticipate incidents and crises," "to identify weak signals," to provide "help for planning," or "scenario-based predictions." All of this happens as part of "real-time management" by processing a "maximum of existing data" in a "hypervisions and command center".

The city limits its work only to manage the "risk consequences", while the police are given in the Safe City similar far-reaching powers as in late absolutism. It is intended to gather knowledge about the population and to control its behavior by influencing certain variables and thereby ensuring obedience and productivity.

What's really new about it is that you've given up the fuzzy goal of maintaining "public order" and are now limited to managing the mess. With all the trumps of information technology in their hands, the technocrats believe they could work too

Chaos of the swarm recognize certain characteristics or statistical regularities, by means of which one can categorize, sort and correlate. On this basis, it is then predicted, prevented, anticipated and readjusted – if necessary, but also targeted and suppressed.

To this end, Safe City relies on two major technical innovations. Today it is possible to combine various data sets such as police registers and personal data collected online, especially via social networks, to produce statistics and decision-making aids for preventive police work. The surveillance instruments that the major intelligence agencies have been experimenting with for ten years are now being extended to the whole of police tasks.

In Marseille, since November 2017, there has been a "Big Data Observatory" for the maintenance of public order entrusted to the private company Engie Ineo. Here the data of various municipal facilities (police, transport companies, hospitals) are brought together and supplemented by the information of "external partners". Partners are for example the Ministry of the Interior, which bundles numerous registers and databases centrally, or telephone providers, with whose data for the localization of mobile phones in real time "human streams" can be mapped.

Marseille has a storage capacity of 600 terabytes

Even the citizens themselves are called to cooperate, via the App CrowdSourcing they should forward information (text messages, videos, photos, site changes, stress levels …) directly to the authorities. It also focuses on monitoring communications on social networks, such as Twitter or Facebook, to "anticipate threats." By analyzing posts and tweets, the risks for "dangerous crowds" are calculated and actors "identified". To store and process such huge amounts of data, the city of Marseille has purchased several Oracle servers. It has a storage capacity of 600 terabytes – as much as the online archive of the French National Library.

The second pillar of the Safe City is the automatic evaluation of video surveillance. The French state, cities and municipalities have spent hundreds of millions of Euros on surveillance cameras since 2007, without showing any significant results. But the automation now promises the blue sky – with the advantage that you no longer have to pay people for the viewing of the material. Intelligent surveillance projects have been launched in Toulouse, Nice, Marseille, Valenciennes and Paris, but also in the départements of Gard (Occitania) and Yvelines (Île-de-France).

The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, is one of the politicians who are particularly enthusiastic about the new technical possibilities. In December 2018, he brought the following application by the Regional Council of the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur (Paca): In collaboration with the US company Cisco were installed in two high schools at entrances and exits locks for face recognition. The last carnival in the city served as a trial field to try out similar instruments.

Nice is also one of the French cities that want to combine video surveillance with emotion recognition algorithms. The city government has turned to the start-up Two-i, which is to install its analysis tools in trams. In Nancy and Metz Two-i works with housing associations to calculate the feelings of the inhabitants. In Irigny, near Lyons, police ordered DC Communications (DCC) to analyze the "state of mind" of people entering one of their guards.

Nice relies on feeling recognition

The neuro-marketing process adopted by the advertising industry can identify joy, grief, fear and even contempt. "The algorithm then measures those feelings and filters out the strongest ones," explains Rémy Millescamps, founder of DC Communication and reserve policeman.

Even if there is no shortage of potential uses of "intelligent" video surveillance, the automatic detection of suspicious persons and behavior is clearly in the foreground. In a keynote speech in June 2018, former Home Secretary Gérard Collomb announced that artificial intelligence would soon be providing tools that could "identify individuals with strange behaviors in a crowd."

This article is taken from the current issue of Le Monde diplomatique. LMd is always included on the second Friday of the month of the taz and can be ordered individually in the taz-Shop: Printed or digital (including audio version). The complete table of contents of the current issue can be found at

Collomb's vision rebounded in the context of the yellow-voted protests when the Paris National Assembly approved in February 2019 at first reading the draft for a so-called anti-rioter law (disguise prohibition and individual demonstration bans). In the debate over the ultimate change in legislation, Conservative Republicans MPs called for legalizing the interconnection of video surveillance images with various databases to automate "the identification of dangerous individuals at a rally."

However, the focus is not just on political activists and terrorist suspects: since 2016, registration offices and immigration authorities have been collecting ever larger volumes of biometric data that anyone who applies for an ID card or passport or applies for a residence permit must hand over to them. This allows facial recognition to be extended to ever larger groups of people.

Together with Britain, France is currently the leader in Europe in using such social control techniques. While the secret services in 2016 still had to buy software from the US company Palantir, the promotion of national big data companies in the security sector has now become a top priority. Thanks to the Safe City projects, service companies like Engie Ineo or defense and security groups like Thales can compete with US or Chinese competitors in these new markets. The principal shareholder with more than one third of the voting rights in both companies is the French state (with 23.6 and 25.8 percent, respectively).

Together with Britain, France is currently the leader in Europe in using such social control techniques

In addition to cities and communities, numerous other public institutions are involved in this development. The Safe City project in Nice, directed by Thales, is the best example of this. It will follow the thematic guidelines of the Industry Safety Committee, which mediates between government and private sector. At the same time, the project received a label, which is awarded by the same committee.

Comprehensive privatization of security policy

Under the "Investment for the Future" program, the state investment bank BPI supported the project with grants and loans amounting to 11 million euros; the total budget (for a period of three years) is 25 million euros. Several of the technologies used have been developed in research projects in which industry and government agencies such as the National Research Institute for Informatics and Automation (Inria) have collaborated with financial support from the National Research Authority or the European Commission.

The Safe City leads to a comprehensive privatization of security policy. The technical expertise will be fully delegated to the companies and the parameters for controlling the algorithms will probably remain a trade secret. At the legal level, no serious inquiry into whether such surveillance instruments are compatible with the right to privacy, freedom of conscience and expression remains to date.

At the moment, only the legal departments of the participating companies are watching over compliance with the laws, which were reformed in 2018 but have already been overtaken by technical developments.

Technical armaments will have important political implications: some quarters will be more in the focus of police attention, discrimination against certain marginalized groups will intensify, and social movements will be easier to repress. Of course, all this is not mentioned by the initiators of these projects.

Meanwhile, the French data protection authority CNIL (National Commission for Informatics and Freedoms) looks on passively and hides behind constraints (lack of funds) and the statement that the EU data protection rules have deprived it of the right of decision from the outset. Most recently, she called for a "democratic debate" to "set appropriate frameworks" – thereby indirectly acknowledging that there is still no legal framework. According to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, that would be enough to prove that the Safe City projects are simply illegal.

The Macron government, which has announced a reform of the Intelligence Law for 2020, could still benefit from the CNIL appeal to later legalize ongoing experiments and prepare for the expansion of police surveillance. Unless the citizens go out on the street and thwart them.

(From the French by Sabine Jainski)

Monitoring (t) Marseille (t) Nice (t) France (t) Smart City (t) Monitoring (t) Network Policy (t) Policy (t) Priority (t) taz (t) daily newspaper


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