France to start nationwide facial recognition program in November

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France becomes the first EU country to use facial recognition to give residents a digital identity. This allows citizens to access their bank details, tax returns and accounts. Citizens can participate via an Android app.

According to French President Macron, the French government wants to start a digital identities project called Alicem in November, reports financial news agency Bloomberg. Macron initially hoped to start the program around Christmas. The program works through an app that will only work on Android devices. With the app, residents of France will soon be able to create a digital identity by means of a selfie video that will capture facial expressions, movements and angles, among other things. This data is then compared with the data on users’ biometric passports.

Opponents argue that the app violates the European General Data Protection Regulation. This regulation makes free choice in participation mandatory. A lawyer for the French privacy group La Quadrature du Net argues that the government wants to push citizens towards participation in facial recognition. The group filed a lawsuit against the government in July.

France itself states that the ID system will not be used to monitor citizens, Bloomberg reports. The data will not be integrated into the identity database of citizens. According to the French Ministry of the Interior, the collected facial recognition data will be deleted after the registration period.

In addition, the use of Alicem is voluntary. The site of the French Ministry of the Interior states that creating an Alicem account is not mandatory and that citizens are free to use available alternatives, including traditional, physical identifiers. The technology is being applied with an Android app, so iOS users are left out for now; it looks like there won’t be an app for Apple devices just yet.

There are also concerns with regard to safety. The French authorities say Alicem’s security is of the ‘highest level’, but confidence in such classifications was dented in April. A hacker then knew under the alias Alliot Anderson instant messaging app to invade Tchap. This app is used by government officials for communications, including the exchange of sensitive data, although not state secrets.

Alicem is not the only way facial recognition will be used in France. For example, the regional government in the French city of Nice wants to install facial recognition cameras at the entrances of two secondary schools, Politico writes. Earlier this year, the city was discredited because the local government did tests with facial recognition at a local carnival party. The tests were done with the permission of the French privacy regulator CNIL. One thousand volunteers took part in the trial; the faces of partygoers who did not want to participate in the test would be made unrecognizable.

France is not the first country to use facial recognition. China has been using the technology for a long time. Singapore also already uses facial recognition and has pledged to help the UK deploy such technology.

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