Opinion: We all lose if the Olympic surveillance state becomes the norm

Editor’s Note: Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University. He is the author of six books on the politics of the Olympic Games, most recently “What Are the Olympics For? The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

The Paris 2024 Summer Olympics kick off in 100 days, and all of a sudden things are getting real. This week, the Olympic flame was lit in Olympia amid choreographed pomp and pageantry. The flame will wend its way to Paris where earlier this week French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that, in light of potential security threats, Olympic organizers have devised a backup plan for the Games’ audacious opening ceremony, which is planned to flow down the Seine river with a boat for each country’s delegation.

Jules Boykoff - Jessi Wahnetah
Jules Boykoff - Jessi Wahnetah

The contrast between celebration and seriousness spotlights how the 2024 Paris Olympics will not only be a festival of sport, but also a smorgasbord of security measures.

The Olympics have a long track record of supporting the augmentation of host cities’ and countries’ state power through the passage of special laws and the procurement of sophisticated equipment. To many civil liberties advocates, the Games have become a smiley-faced ruse for soft-launching surveillance technologies that too often remain in place after the Games’ closing ceremony, largely normalizing invasive security practices.

To be sure, the Olympics have a grim history with instances of terrorism. Exhibit A: the 1972 Munich Games where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after being taken hostage by affiliates of Black September, a Palestinian militant group. A German police officer was also killed. Exhibit B: the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics where a bomb explosion left two people dead and injured more than 100.

The stature and scope of the event make the Olympics an attractive target for violent extremists.

That coupled with Paris’ recent experiences with terrorism – foremost, the 2015 coordinated attacks for which ISIS took responsibility that included suicide bombers targeting the Stade de France – are among the factors fueling government officials’ assertion that the threat of terrorism hanging over this summer’s Games requires elaborate security systems.

But that same high-tech architecture can be flipped for use against activists expressing political dissent.

France enacted an Olympic Games Law in May 2023 that legalized the use of AI-driven video surveillance this summer and allowed experimentation with intelligent video surveillance until March 31, 2025. The law made France the first nation in the European Union to greenlight biometric surveillance systems. A gaggle of human rights groups – including Amnesty International, the European Civic Forum and Human Rights Watch – blasted the law, writing in Le Monde that it was “a worrying precedent,” noting the legislation’s “unjustified and disproportionate surveillance in public spaces, to the detriment of fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Noémie Levain, a lawyer with the Paris-based digital rights group La Quadrature du Net, agrees. She told me that the Olympic Law “infringes the right to privacy, the right to be anonymous in the streets.”

“Everything in this is political,” Levain said. “Public space is a political space. This is where you demonstrate. This is where you act the way you want. This is where there is the freedom of expression.”

She added that AI-driven surveillance “is a way to shape public space according to the values of the government and police – and in the end, it will always be poor people, people from minority communities, migrants, political activists who will be targets.” Research has found that AI technologies can reinforce systemic racism, what some call “techno-racism.”

French officials have insisted that intensified surveillance is necessary to preserve public safety during the Olympic period. Speaking last month at a government hearing, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said, “This is, for the Ministry of the Interior, the biggest logistical and security challenge we’ve ever had to organize.” France’s Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera added that the surveillance measure “is very precisely limited in time.” Moreover, she noted, “the algorithm does not substitute for human judgement, which remains decisive.”

France’s AI-powered surveillance is slated to sunset at the end of March 2025. But in December the European Parliament agreed on a framework for the AI Act – dubbing it a landmark “deal on comprehensive rules for trustworthy AI” – which could potentially extend AI surveillance across Europe. While the act regulates high-risk AI systems that “can potentially create an adverse impact on people’s health, safety or their fundamental rights,” it also allows for “remote biometric identification by law enforcement authorities in public spaces, subject to safeguards.” These safeguards include conspicuously capacious exemptions for law enforcement, allowing AI use for the “prevention of a specific and present terrorist threat” and “the localisation or identification of a person suspected of having committed one of the specific crimes,” such as murder, “participation in a criminal organisation” or “environmental crime.” Last month, the European Union officially approved the act.

Beyond AI-driven surveillance, at least 70,000 security officials will be deployed at the Games, including around 35,000 police officers15,000 soldiers from France’s military and 20,000 private security guards. France’s Interior Ministry has asked numerous foreign countries to send members of their own security forces to help police the Games. To secure the domestic private security force in time, the training course is reportedly being shortened, with the normal amount of formal preparation reduced from 175 hours to 106. Even this hasn’t worked.

French officials placed the country on its highest terror alert level last month after a terrorist attack in Moscow. Meanwhile, 400 security cameras will be added in Paris, bringing the total to around 4,400. The French Ministry of the Armed Forces unveiled plans to use HELMA-P, an anti-drone laser weapon system prototype, at the Paris Games. The Opening Ceremony, originally expected to include some 600,000 spectators, will become a literal no-fly zone. As if to underscore the security complexities, the French government recently announced that it halved the number of Opening Ceremony spectators. Now Macron has suggested that the ceremony could be moved to the Trocadéro or the Stade de France, should a serious security threat emerge.

Natsuko Sasaki, an activist with the anti-Games group Saccage 2024, told me that the French government’s high-tech laws, weapons and bolstered security force comprised a “lockdown methodology” that “limits the choice of activists to legally protest,” curtailing democracy itself. Activists may be less inclined to express their dissent if they know that AI-driven systems are tracking their every move and banking their data for potential future use, what some surveillance scholars refer to as “chilling effects.”

Meanwhile, with minimal consultation with elected officials, Paris Police Chief Laurent Nuñez said in an interview with Le Parisien that motorists and residents who live near Olympic venues must apply online to secure a QR code that will allow them to access traffic-restricted zones in the city during the Paris Games. This has raised ire across the political spectrum, with many arguing that France has gone too far, sacrificing the civil liberties of everyday people on the altar of Olympic spectacle. One member of parliament on the left responded to the digital surveillance by asserting, “The Olympic Games will have a liberticidal taste.” The far-right Les Patriotes Party slammed the QR codes as a “frightening spectacle” and organized a public protest in mid-December at the Palais Royal in central Paris against the “totalitarian experience” of the Olympics.

Danielle Simonnet, a member of France’s National Assembly representing the left-of-center La France Insoumise Party, told me in no uncertain terms that “the Olympics are a pretext for accelerating a policy of generalized surveillance.” This may be contributing to the fact that Parisians are souring on the 2024 Games. A recent poll found that 44% of respondents in the Paris region thought that the Olympics were a “bad thing,” with those opining that the Games are a “good thing” declining significantly over time; transportation and security were most often rated as concerns.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach recently stated that the Paris 2024 Olympics “will be a turning point in history: more sustainable, more urban, more inclusive, with gender parity – Games wide open.” All that is debatable. But what’s clear is that Paris 2024 could tilt France – and perhaps the wider European Union – in a more surveillance-drenched, repressive direction.

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