France imposed some of Europe's toughest measures in response to the virus last year and initially deployed helicopters and drones to monitor adherence to the rules. The drones were equipped to spot lockdown violators, guide teams on the ground and broadcast warnings via loudspeakers.
But privacy activists feared that the drone monitoring could serve as a trial run for more-expansive surveillance programs. The concerns prompted a legal challenge and a ruling by France's highest court in May to suspend the practices in Paris.
Privacy groups said French authorities carried on despite the ruling, continuing to deploy drones at protests.
The decision by CNIL — which significantly ups the stakes for the French government, as it applies nationally — comes amid a broader tug-of-war between privacy activists and authorities in Europe over how to police coronavirus restrictions. That debate has played out worldwide in recent months, as leaders and authorities in a number of countries were accused of using the pandemic as a pretext to expand their powers. But Europe's extensive privacy laws have put civil liberties activists in a stronger position than activists elsewhere.
After a Belgian police force said last month that it would use drones with heat cameras to monitor end-of-year festivities in people's homes, privacy activists rallied against the plans. Belgium's college of public prosecutors subsequently ruled that drones should not be used to crack down on violations of coronavirus rules, even though they can still be deployed to assess crowd sizes from afar.
In Germany and Austria, privacy concerns have largely revolved around police officers' access to private homes to enforce coronavirus rules. Both countries have a high burden of proof that's required for officials to be able to enter homes, and lawmakers in Germany quickly rushed to reassure citizens that this wouldn't change. After criticism, Austria's government abandoned an attempt to change the law.
European governments have faced similar issues in the context of smartphone apps to trace contacts of infected individuals. Officials had hoped such apps could become crucial tools to curb the spread of the virus, but privacy concerns have prevented public health authorities from accessing the data and reduced people's willingness to download the technology. The limitations prompted frustration among users and health authorities — one German health official called his country's app "useless."
In a joint statement in November, numerous United Nations agencies, including the World Health Organization, offered cautious support for countries that have heavily relied on data-gathering during the pandemic, arguing that "the collection, use, sharing and further processing of data can help limit the spread of the virus." But the agencies also warned that the collection of personal data could result in the "infringement of fundamental human rights and freedoms" if it's abused.
In France, authorities have faced multiple setbacks over privacy concerns since the pandemic began. Last summer, the Parisian transport authority suspended an effort that used AI technology to monitor whether Metro riders were wearing masks. France's privacy watchdog had criticized the experiment, arguing that it risked "a feeling of general surveillance among citizens" that could "undermine the proper functioning of our democratic society."
Even though the cameras had been installed for experimental purposes and were not used to impose fines, CNIL objected to the absence of a way for people to opt out of the footage.
The watchdog's ruling on drones is based on similar concerns.
It means that officials will also no longer be allowed to use drones to monitor protesters until CNIL's concerns have been resolved — a stance that could put the authority in direct opposition to a government proposal to expand their use. The proposal is part of a broader draft security bill that has been fiercely debated in France for weeks, with critics viewing it as a serious threat to civil liberties in the country.
The draft bill, given the initial green light in the French National Assembly last year, is set to be discussed in the French Senate this month.