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From the Field

Major Events: The Olympics of Digital Urban Safety?

Major international events are increasingly witnessing the deployment of digital security policies and technologies, from facial recognition to anti-drone systems. Myrtille Picaud shows how the 2023 men’s Rugby World Cup and the 2024 Olympics will accelerate their development.

After hosting the men’s European Football (Soccer) Championship in 2016, France will host two major sporting events during the next presidential term: the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024. The latter will be held in the Île-de-France (greater Paris) region, with the Olympic Village being built across the inner-suburban towns of Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine and L’Île-Saint-Denis. This area, close to the Stade de France, which was built in the 1990s, has recently undergone several urban-renewal projects, and is home to a predominantly working-class population.

The contribution of Olympic projects to urban policies, such as the urban renewal of working-class neighborhoods as part of large-scale real-estate operations, has been well documented (Essex and Chalkley 1998; Fussey et al. 2012). But what role do events play in the field of public action in favor of urban safety? The Olympic and Paralympic Games (OPGs) will be an important symbolic issue for the next presidential term. In particular, they are shaping up to be a central security issue. Indeed, these events, with their huge international media impact, are often presented as potential targets for attacks, but also for political demonstrations such as those by the Yellow Vests, according to Central Director of Public Security Céline Berthon. [1] But what we propose to examine is the role played by major events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games as catalysts for market development and policies dedicated to the digital security of urban spaces. Facial recognition, video surveillance using algorithms to analyze images and alert the public if certain behaviors are detected (crowd formation, trespassing in unauthorized areas, abandoned luggage, etc.), anti-drone systems: these digital devices cover a wide range of technologies aimed above all at controlling public spaces in cities. The Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games are involved in their development on three levels: economic, legal and technical.

A showcase for French industrial expertise to “structure the sector”

The OPGs have been described as a security showcase by some authors (Bennett and Haggerty 2011). In 2004, in Athens, where the budget dedicated to security was one of the highest (nearly 1.3 billion euros), a hypervisor system was implemented, notably under pressure from the US government. This platform, developed by a consortium led by a US military company, was to connect numerous sensors dedicated to surveillance, such as cameras. In the end, it never really worked. In London, where a large part of the security was provided by private partners, the scandal arose from their inability, a few weeks before the event, to provide a sufficient number of security guards. These difficulties did not, however, call into question the upward trend in security measures.

The 2024 Olympic Games are presented as a key event in the industrial policy designed to strengthen this sector. Support for this sector comes against a backdrop of increasing competition from foreign companies (notably American, Chinese and Israeli), strong development of digital technologies in this field, and insistence on the exponential market this represents, by interest groups such as consulting agencies. [2] The 2024 Olympic Games should provide an opportunity to showcase French expertise in this field. The event’s security budget (financed by the OPG Organizing Committee and the French State), recently revised upwards, is estimated at 295 million euros [3] and 25 million euros have already been earmarked, through the Plan de Relance, for experimenting with "innovative" upstream security arrangements at other events, such as Roland Garros or soccer matches.

The OPGs thus feature in the 2020-2022 industry contract of the Comité stratégique de filière des industries de sécurité, signed in 2020 by Christophe Castaner, then France’s interior minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, secretary of state to the economy and finance minister, and Marc Darmon, chairman of the Conseil des Industries de la Confiance et de la Sécurité and deputy CEO of the multinational Thales. This contract, which mobilizes public authorities and interest groups, is organized around five "structuring projects" to "[p]osition French industry as a world leader in smart city security" (CNI 2020). The first project cited is that of Security for Major Events and the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. This idea is echoed in the report submitted to the French prime minister by jurist and LREM parliamentarian Jean-Michel Mis, for whom these events are "mobilizing for the French industrial and service offering, which has structured a response dedicated to major sporting events within the framework of the industry contract" (Mis 2021, p. 18). The Olympic Games are thus seen as an event that brings together public and private players to support the national development of this market for new technologies, with the support of both orders and public subsidies.

An opportunity to develop the legislative framework for digital security

Nevertheless, there is one major issue limiting the development of this market: the legislative framework. This lies at the heart of the mobilizations of interest groups, which are finding a sympathetic ear with many representatives of the public authorities, for whom the 2024 Olympic Games offer an opportunity to enact change. The use of certain technologies that have polarized public debate, such as "automated" video surveillance and facial recognition, is envisaged as an experiment or "short-term employment" (Mis 2021, p. 25). These devices are presented as facilitating the management of flows and access authorizations to different areas—for example, to manage differentiated access to the Olympic Village for the public, professionals and athletes. These systems have already been used at, among other events, the Tokyo Olympic Games and the men’s soccer World Cup in Russia. Representatives of interest groups, security companies, public authorities and the organizers of the Olympic Games are discussing this issue at meetings:

There is also the question of access to the Olympic Village, and what technologies can provide in terms of additional guarantees. For example, video-protection combined with facial recognition or the detection of abnormal events. But we need to overcome the legal obstacles that are holding back real-life experimentation. [...] So we need to weigh up the pros and cons carefully, but we must lose no time and find the legislative vector within the next 18 months to be able to test things like facial recognition in real-life situations (the Director of State Protection and Security (DPSE) at the General Secretariat for Defense and National Security (SGDSN), a department of the Prime Minister’s Office, "Safe and Smart JO" meeting at the Île-de-France prefecture on February 5, 2019, ethnographic notes).

The evolution of the legal framework for the use of these technologies appears to be fairly consensual, for several reasons. Firstly, the politicization of the terrorist threat makes political opposition to the implementation of security measures extremely costly. Secondly, the use of these technologies at festive and sporting events generally provokes less resistance, as attempts at politicization or intervention by militant groups are generally kept at a distance from these media events, which are designed to generate communion and shared jubilation. Last but not least, the argument that use is limited in time also facilitates acceptance. However, the groups behind a petition entitled "Neither in 2024, nor ever: NO to the Olympic Big Brother," [4] warn of the trivializing effect and the risk of continued use of these technologies. The perennial implementation of initially temporary or exceptional measures is indeed an antiphon of security policies (Codaccioni 2015). Installing sensors in working-class neighborhoods, such as the one that will host the Olympic Village, raises questions about what can be done with them afterwards.

A life-size laboratory?

If major sporting events are "gas pedals" for the security industry, it’s also because they provide a unique opportunity to test technical devices in real-life conditions. Indeed, if the technologies developed work in the laboratory, this does not mean that they will be efficient in reality. Firstly, this may be linked to the technical dimension. For example, algorithms designed to detect specific events in video surveillance images, such as the build-up of a crowd, have been defined ("trained") using images of relatively good quality. When deployed on real-time security cameras, they may be less effective, as the resolution is of poorer quality, the camera is located in a space with low luminosity, and so on. Algorithms therefore need to be tested in real-life conditions in order to adapt them, for which the OPGs offers an ideal framework.

French research institutions are supporting the testing of new safety technologies for the Olympics. The French National Research Agency (ANR) has dedicated a call to these subjects. Six projects have been selected, for a total budget of 2.8 million euros, half of which focus on crowd control, with one of them proposing to develop "predictive crowd management strategies [...] to adapt security systems". [5] Other projects couple a biometric identification system with access control, or plan to detect atypical or critical situations using data from mobile telephony and the social network Twitter.

But it is not just the technical dimension of security systems that makes major events a testing ground. Like urban security, that of major events involves many different agents (national and municipal police forces, private security guards, etc.), between whom there are social and professional hierarchies, and whose practices differ. The use of technology is part of these practices and power relations, as shown by the example of traditional video surveillance (Lemaire 2019). However, the worlds of security, their hierarchies and their practices, are in reality little known to some of the companies designing these devices, for example those with more digital and new technology backgrounds. For these companies, the OPGs offer an opportunity to make initial contact with a view to subsequent contracts, and to gain a better understanding of the uses to which their products may be put.

Major sporting events thus appear to be catalysts for public action in terms of digital security. To date, the legislative changes envisaged after the 2022 presidential elections in this area, just like the holding of the 2024 Olympic Games, have been the subject of little public debate. Nevertheless, collectives such as Non aux JO 2024 in Paris, or associations defending civil liberties such as those spearheading the "Technopolice" campaign, are currently taking up the issue. Beyond the questions these policies raise about respect for civil liberties, there are also economic and urban issues at stake. Economic, first of all, because the development of this market is strongly supported by public subsidies, which would be better used in other sectors, especially as the effectiveness of these technologies in terms of security remains uncertain. Then there are the urban issues, since it is in cities, many of which are currently implementing digital security projects (Picaud 2021), that these technologies will find a new home. However, beyond surveillance, the development of these policies also reflects specific visions of the uses of public spaces and ways of living in cities, which are not the subject of technical debates.


  • Bennett, C. J. and Haggerty, K. D. (eds.). 2011. Security Games. Surveillance and Control at Mega-Events, New York: Routledge.
  • CNI, 2020. Contrat stratégique de la filière. Industries de sécurité 2020/2022, Paris: Conseil National de l’Industrie.
  • Codaccioni, V. 2015. Justice d’exception. L’État face aux crimes politiques et terroristes, Paris: CNRS Éditions.
  • Essex, S. and Chalkley, B. 1998. “Olympic Games: Catalyst of Urban Change”, Leisure Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 187–206.
  • Fussey, P., Coaffee, J., Armstrong, G. and Hobbs, D. 2012. “The Regeneration Games: Purity and Security in the Olympic City”, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 260–284.
  • Lemaire, É. 2019. L’Œil sécuritaire. Mythes et réalités de la vidéosurveillance, Paris: La Découverte.
  • Mis, J.-M. 2021. Pour un usage responsable et acceptable par la société des technologies de sécurité, report for the French prime minister, Paris.
  • Picaud, M. 2021. “Peur sur la ville. La sécurité numérique pour l’espace urbain en France”, working paper for the Chaire “Villes et numérique” (“Cities and Digital” Research Chair), Paris: Sciences Po – École Urbaine.

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To cite this article:

Myrtille Picaud & translated by Oliver Waine, “Major Events: The Olympics of Digital Urban Safety?”, Metropolitics, 2 June 2023. URL :

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