Get Ready for AI Surveillance at the 2024 Paris Olympics

Get Ready for AI Surveillance at the 2024 Paris Olympics

Get Ready for AI Surveillance at the 2024 Paris Olympics

The Olympics don’t make authoritarian countries more democratic; they make democratic countries more authoritarian.


After some initial public enchantment with artificial-intelligence (AI) technologies, people have been ringing alarm bells with increasing fervor. In Hollywood, concerns that AI will be used as a worker-replacement contraption has helped animate the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. Katrina vanden Heuvel noted in The Nation that although AI could usher in “an era of unprecedented human health and happiness,” the bundle of technologies also “has the potential for massive economic disruption, weakened national security, and the erosion of personal privacy.” In other words, because we, the people, don’t control AI, it is in the hands of the 1 percent, and it could come to control us.

Enter the Olympic machine. Ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics, the French National Assembly approved the experimental use of AI-driven video surveillance at the Paris 2024 Olympics. Using the quadrennially popular Olympic state of exception as political cover, the law permits algorithmic video surveillance to detect “suspicious” or “abnormal” activity in Olympic crowds, analyzing video data from drones and fixed CCTV cameras before notifying police. The French capital expects 600,000 people to converge on the city for the opening ceremony alone, and the government wants to keep tabs on everyone. The law, supported by French President Emmanuel Macron, will remain in place through March 2025, long after the Olympics have transpired. Human rights groups and civil liberties organizations have responded with blistering criticism. After all, the European Union has already been regulating AI technologies in ways that curtail their use until we know more about the social ramifications.

With the new and invasive law, the Olympics are creating legal structures that could entrench potentially massive privacy violations. Amnesty International’s Agnès Callamard slammed the law, asserting, “These technologies amplify racist policing and threaten the right to protest.” Danielle Simonnet, a member of France’s National Assembly from the left-wing populist party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), said, “The law demonstrates that the Olympics are a pretext for accelerating a policy of generalized surveillance.” She added that the law “is an attack on the rights to privacy, the right to protest, and freedom of assembly and expression that will only aggravate discriminatory policies.” Nevertheless, France’s top constitutional court recently ruled in favor of the legislation, allowing France to press ahead with AI-driven surveillance.

For those who wish to unleash the power of AI surveillance willy-nilly, the ends always seem to justify the means. All too often, amid the Olympic state of exception, elected officials and tech barons abandon our shared principles, supposedly in order to defend them.

This is not merely a Paris problem—it’s an Olympic problem. Since 9/11, we’ve seen a pattern of countries ramping up closed circuit television and drone surveillance. Then they conveniently forget to put their new gadgets “back in the box,” to use the phrase of one British police official heard before the 2012 Games in London. Yet now, with the advent of AI technology, this is going to another level.

In Los Angeles, which is slated to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, Games organizers are using the Olympics to soft-launch new and newish and invasive facets of surveillance capitalism. Back in 2019, LA28 chair Casey Wasserman said that by the time the 2028 Summer Olympics arrives in the City of Angels, “Everything will be facial recognition, you’ll walk right into the building, and there won’t be lines.” Racial profiling be damned—we need more efficient building entry.

As for France, its new AI-driven surveillance law moves in the direction opposite that recommended by AI experts. It is just one more example of how the Olympics can soften up the public for the introduction of ever-more-invasive technologies. The result is that the police and their minders seize ever more power. This in and of itself runs counter to the idea that the Olympics, when staged in authoritarian countries, helps make them more democratic. The opposite is true: They make ostensible democracies more authoritarian.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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