New French draft law tabled to permit drone use by police

French police drone

French legislators have begun studying a new draft law to permit the use of drones by police for surveillance – a practice that was upended by legal rulings earlier this year. Debate over the measure offers insight into how state deployment of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) has become iconic of wider French concerns with potential data and privacy violations by authorities.

One more time: new bill seeks to define drone surveillance struck down in earlier law

The bill was introduced Tuesday by members of the ruling right-leaning majority. Sponsors are still smarting over the censoring of key articles in previous security legislation they passed – particularly its authorization of UAVs in the surveillance of protests and demonstrations. The chief argument in France’s high legal authority striking down that use of drones by police was the law failed to sufficiently define how and why those flights would be conducted, or stipulate safeguards to the privacy of individuals filmed. 

This week’s draft law seeks to overcome those critiques by fixing limits on when and why officials can operate UAV for policing, and how long they can keep data on people collected from that.

The reworked text hopes to satisfy the earlier objections of privacy activists and legal authorities who nixed the contested articles by putting clearer markers down in what had previously been vaguer language. In doing so, it outlines a lot of hierarchical and administrative requirements in defining responsibility for authorizing and operating drone flights by police. It also demands detailed information be given on the number and type of UAVs deployed, as well as exact specs of cameras involved. It calls for the public to be informed of planned aerial surveillance, and sets geographical limits and a maximal three-month timeframe for the length of those missions.

More broadly, the bill defines the scenarios in which police may use drones. Those are limited to preventing attacks on people and property; fighting terrorism; traffic regulation; border surveillance; and assemblies likely to result in serious disorder. That latter category was cited by legislators sponsoring the bill in arguing it will help police battle dangerous, widely despised, yet increasing cases of reckless motorcycle gatherings in urban settings by youths across the country.

The draft’s restrictions, however, are unlikely to placate privacy advocates or the many people across French society who regard drones as only the latest way authorities seek to tighten to intrude ever deeper into the lives of individuals. Famously jealous of their privacy, the French often regard digital technology advances as a mixed bag of myriad positives that also contain troubling threats to their data and other security. As in other countries, meantime, a lot of people in France just hate the whining, presumably prying vehicles buzzing above – especially with cops at the controls.

French opponents wary of mixing drones, data, and cops

Many in France cheered, for example, when legal authorities banned police from using UAV to check social distancing and mask violations following France’s first lockdown last spring. 

Others took glee in a similar prohibition being applied to Franco-British plans to have police fly drones to detect and arrest undocumented migrants on France’s norther coast preparing to cross the English channel and illegally enter the UK. Critics called the plan an egregious example of a Big Brother French state using tech to harass people – in this case some of the weakest and most vulnerable individuals around.

The current political and legislative balances of power are such, however, that the new bill will likely be voted through in coming weeks. The painful lessons of the past learned by its authors, meanwhile, it also stands a good chance of passing muster with legal watchdogs once it’s law. 

Even opponents, meantime, may regard stricter rules for an activity they dislike as better than none at all. Indeed, the interdiction pronounced earlier this year specified certain uses of drones by police, but without banning the practice outright. That created a legal void in which France’s cops have flown over 3,000 hours of missions in the first eight months of this year alone – though it’s uncertain anyone who knows about those will reveal what they were for.

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