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Your favorite sports are ushering an Orwellian future
Spectacles such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games are being used as excuses for host nations to become surveillance states.
In the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to use the government’s special constitutional power to force through a bill to raise the age of retirement without a vote in parliament, more than 1500 protests have taken place across the country.
And while the government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote on Tuesday, protesters continue to take to the streets in Paris. Some have set up road blockades, barricaded university buildings, and set fire to piles of trash that have formed because of a strike by garbage collectors in the capital.
Yet as protestors continue to direct their anger and attention at Macron’s pension push, the country’s National Assembly is taking advantage of the distraction to pass a bill that would increase the state’s surveillance capabilities in time for the 2024 Olympic Games.
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The proposed law—entitled projet de loi relatif aux jeux Olympiques et Paralympiques de 2024—was introduced by French senators in January and contains a provision that would allow for the use of algorithm-driven cameras to detect suspicious activity in public spaces. The proposed AI-system is “experimental,” according to the draft bill, and will rely on identifying “risky” behavior instead of facial or biometric identification.
Nevertheless, while the bill was named after the Olympics, human rights organizations have condemned the proposed law as a “serious threat to democratic principles.”
“According to our organizations, the surveillance provision of the proposed bill would constitute a serious threat to civic freedoms and democratic principles”, said Frederike Kaltheuner, Director for technology and human rights at Human Rights Watch “It would increase the risk of racial discrimination in law enforcement and be a further step toward the normalization of exceptional surveillance powers under the guise of security for major events.”
A group of 38 civil society organizations also issued an open letter to the National Assembly expressing their concern with the proposed law, which they argued could have “a chilling effect on fundamental civic freedoms.”
“It is important to remember that the use of AI-based systems to analyze and predict people's behaviours, emotions or intentions can be equally as invasive and dangerous as those which are used to identify people. Classifying people as exhibiting “risky” behaviour based on their biometric data would amount to biometric categorization.”
France’s decision to flirt with authoritarian-style AI technology under the guise of protective measures for the Olympic Games is far from the first time that a host nation has used sports events to expand on their surveillance capacities.
In December 2022, more than 15,000 cameras were deployed to monitor football fans throughout the duration of the 2022 World Cup. Fans are also being surveilled around Doha’s streets by drones and by CCTV cameras armed with facial recognition technology. The cameras were operated remotely from a central command centre that allows security to zoom in and track targets.
Qatar touted its state-of-the-art technology as the future of sports surveillance.
“What you see here is a new standard, a new trend in venue operations, this is our contribution from Qatar to the world of sport,” Niyas Abdulrahiman, the organizers’ chief technology officer told AFP.
Beyond Qatar, several stadiums across Europe have utilized surveillance tactics in recent years, with varying degrees of success. Notable clubs such as Atlético Madrid, Valencia, AFC Ajax, Manchester City, have all experimented with facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric identification, including fingerprints and palm veins.
It must be stressed that biometric identification is a threat to human rights and civil liberties when it is used as a tool for mass surveillance. It often disproportionately affects minority groups such as women, people of color, and people who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2017, facial recognition technology wrongly identified more than 2,200 people as possible criminals at the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff, UK—a 92 percent failure rate.
In preparation for Super Bowl LVII in February, local authorities upgraded a network of cameras around the downtown area that were reportedly embedded with an ““AI-based object detection and classification system.”
While sports spectacles such as the Olympic Games, the World Cup, or even the Super Bowl are required to ensure the safety of attendees, these dystopian AI-systems extend far beyond the bounds of public safety and have the potential to violate international laws, increase racial discrimination, and normalize Orwellian-inspired surveillance states.
“This has notably been the case for surveillance measures introduced over the last 20 years in the name of counterterrorism and more recently – with digital solutions adopted during the Covid-19 pandemic,” read the open letter, which was signed by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. “But we have also seen that previous Olympic games similarly served as a terrain for experimentation with increased state powers later repurposed for non-emergency situations.”
If France is successful in introducing its proposed law, it will set a dangerous precedent for other European countries attempting to utilize biometric surveillance systems. It would also open the doors for authoritarian governments to further exploit the burgeoning surveillance arms-race and utilize its tools to target dissidents and further oppress its citizens.
Meanwhile, the European Union is in the process of passing a landmark AI Act that would serve as the EU regulatory framework on artificial intelligence. Several members of the European Parliament have even called for an outright ban on “remote biometric identification” (RBI) in publicly accessible spaces.
Yet despite mounting opposition to AI-based surveillance tactics, it is unlikely that the bond between sports and digital authoritarianism will be broken anytime soon.