Future Tense

France Is Using A.I. to Detect Whether People Are Wearing Masks

But it’s not as invasive as it sounds.

The middle of the Eiffel Tower is seen in the background. One the right, three golden statues of women wear surgical face masks.
Face masks are seen on the statues of the Trocadéro square before the Eiffel tower on Thursday. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a Future Tense series.

Despite the famous French aversion to surveillance, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred France to integrate artificial intelligence tools into CCTV cameras in the Paris Metro. The new software, which is being trialed at the Châtelet-Les-Halles station in central Paris this week, will detect whether passengers are wearing face masks, Bloomberg reported. This is one of the ways that France, a country with one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, is preparing for easing restrictions on Monday.

While this decision shows France’s willingness to use A.I. to help monitor people’s behavior, the new system isn’t as invasive as it sounds. In fact, France’s embrace of the software charts a tentative path forward for greater surveillance amid the pandemic that is friendlier, if not exactly friendly, to Western notions of privacy.

The system, created by French startup DatakaLab, identifies the number of riders who appear to have face masks—without collecting and storing data on individual passengers, the company says. According to the Verge, the software works on location wherever it’s installed, so the data is never sent to the cloud or to DakataLab’s offices. Instead, every 15 minutes it generates statistics that are then sent to the authorities, who only have access to a dashboard that displays the proportion of riders with masks.

“The goal is just to publish statistics of how many people are wearing masks every day,” DatakaLab CEO Xavier Fischer told the Verge. “We never sell for security purposes. … And that is a condition in all our sales contracts: You can’t use this data for surveillance.” The company has been adamant that it is not using facial recognition technology.

The A.I.-powered tool has already been used since late April in the resort city of Cannes, in the south of France, where it’s been installed in outdoor markets and busses. “No image is stored or transmitted, ensuring that personal information is protected,” DatakaLab said when it announced its collaboration with Cannes City Hall. Like Paris, Cannes plans to give free masks to all residents so the technology might help with distribution, assessing need, and understanding whether the government’s messaging around masks is effective. As Cannes Mayor David Lisnard explained, it “gives us mathematical analysis to meet people’s needs,” the BBC reported.

Notably, the system does not serve a punitive purpose. Although it is now mandatory to wear a mask on public transport in France—and the country is considering fining individuals 135 euros (about $147) for going without them—the software will not be used to identify, rebuke, or fine people. It’s a far cry from, say, the drones hovering around Wuhan, China, scolding residents who left their masks at home, or the surveillance cameras that Chinese authorities have been installing outside—and at times within—apartments.

Although reassurances around privacy haven’t eliminated all worries about the introduction of A.I. to public surveillance, the system hasn’t proved nearly as contentious as, for instance, contact tracing in France. CNIL, the French regulatory body in charge of data privacy, has raised concerns but says for now that the anonymization measures are enough of a guarantee to ensure individual privacy, Le Monde reported. And the Paris metro authority has said that the system will comply with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

France, like the U.S., has been navigating the fine line between individual rights and public safety since the start of the pandemic. And while many Westerners have looked to East Asian countries, including China, Taiwan, and South Korea, for strategies to help contain COVID-19, there’s still considerable skepticism over whether elements of their surveillance programs could be adapted to Western societies. As the debate over mass contact tracing in particular continues in Europe and the U.S., the introduction of face mask–recognition technology in France shows, at least, that there are new, less invasive forms of surveillance people are willing to tolerate as countries begin to navigate post-lockdown life.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.