French law allowing police drone use ruled (mostly) constitutional

French police drones

French police will again be permitted to use drones for surveillance and certain other law enforcement purposes, the nation’s constitutional authority has ruled, ending the nearly two-year legal ban of that activity on grounds it posed privacy violation risks.

France’s highest legal body, le Conseil Constitutionnel, signed off on the legality of most of a bill passed by parliament last month seeking to again permit French police to use drones for crowd monitoring, surveillance, and other enforcement activity. That use had become the government’s obsession – and a matter of no little public opposition – since previous legislation allowing cops to use UAVs and video taken by the craft in enforcement was blocked by other state bodies. Central to those prohibitions were complaints the law was too vague and patchy, and thus failed to ensure people’s constitutional rights to privacy were observed.

The gutting of those texts drew cheers from large sections of French society that remain wary about tech invading private life. But it also steeled the determination of the country’s right-leaning government to pass re-worked drone legislation that couldn’t be undone.

In the meantime, it sparked an international spat after French officials informed colleagues in the UK they would not be able to use UAVs in their common effort to prevent thousands of undocumented migrants amassed in northern France to cross the Channel into England. The craft were among the surveillance tech covered by nearly $110 million in funding that London had provided Paris over a two-year period for use in cracking down on the illegal crossings. 

Under the revised bill introduced in September, limits were stipulated on when and why officials can operate UAVs for policing. Hierarchical chains were also designated for approving those missions, and times set for how long data on people collected by drones could be kept.

Under its ruling Thursday, the constitutional council validated the law’s authorization of police to use drones for “the prevention of attacks on people or property”; “security of assemblies” in public places“; regulation of transport flows”; “border surveillance and illegal crossings”; “rescuing people”; and “the prevention of terrorist acts.” At the same time, it struck down measures that would have allowed municipal cops to use the craft, as well as national police officers to deploy UAVs without authorization from superiors in situations they considered urgent.

The decision marks the end – apparently – of a long struggle between the government and opponents of the laws. That began in May 2020, when France’s Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés – which oversees the collection, storage, and use of data posing potential risks to individual privacy – objected to the use of drones by police to identify violations of COVID-19 restrictions. The nation’s Conseil d’Etat advisory body on legal matters subsequently agreed – and even judged police use of the craft to film mass demonstrations illegal as well. A related decision last May blew holes in the government’s move to legalize UAV surveillance within a bill tightening security measures.

Photo: Paul Marsan

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