Does France's proposed surveillance law go too far?

The anti-terrorism bill includes everything from tapping phones and email accounts without a judge's approval to collecting metadata from mobile phones.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
French President Francois Hollande with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, right, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Wednesday. French police have detained a man they suspect of planning an imminent armed attack on one or two churches.

Privacy is highly prized in France, and its politicians were among the loudest complaining when the NSA's widespread data collection came to light two years ago – despite accusations that France had a similar history of espionage.

Now, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, the French government seems intent on imitating the US intelligence-gathering even more closely. A new bill that would empower French intelligence agencies has stirred a heated national debate over how to balance protection of privacy against the threat of extremist attacks – like the one allegedly foiled this weekend in Paris.

The proposed measures are part of a controversial bill that Parliament began to debate on April 13. Supporters of the bill aim to expand France’s counterterrorism efforts in the aftermath of the Islamic extremist attacks in and around Paris three months ago that left 17 people dead. Their campaign has been further fueled by the arrest over the weekend of an Algerian computer science student, whom French authorities suspected of plotting an imminent attack on at least one church.

But the bill is not without detractors. While a majority of French believe the government should do more to prevent violent extremists from carrying out attacks, the question of how far intelligence services should be allowed to go remains a major sticking point. The challenge – one shared by countries across the world – is in finding the right balance between national security and civil liberties.

“There’s obviously been a lot of emotion following the terrorist attacks," says Virginie Duval, president of the French Magistrates Union. "But we can’t just do whatever in the name of terrorism.”

Expanded powers

The bill would allow intelligence agencies to monitor French citizens without having to submit a request to an independent nine-person panel, as is currently required. They could also tap phones and email accounts without permission from a judge, and install cameras and microphones in a suspect’s home.

In addition, the agencies would be allowed to collect and analyze user metadata from across telecommunication networks. The data would initially be kept anonymous, but users could be identified if intelligence officials requested further surveillance from an independent panel.

As part of the bill, the government has allocated 425 million euros ($457 million) to recruit thousands of intelligence and security officers to increase surveillance.

Lawmakers began drafting new surveillance measures in 2014 to bolster the legal framework of intelligence gathering in the digital era. However, the Paris attacks in January pushed the government to expand the bill and attempt to accelerate its passage through parliament.

But after documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed the far-reaching surveillance activities of the United States and some of its allies, many are skeptical of France’s new bill.

Opponents have criticized it for its perceived encroachment on individual privacy, despite Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ assertion that the bill would only be used "in case of major crisis affecting citizens' security.” He has attested that the surveillance bill is nothing like the US Patriot Act and that it will not be used to gather mass quantities of data.

Still, the bill “is closer to homeland security allowances and privileges than it is to what the Brits do, who have a better protection of individual data than what would be the case under the French law,” says Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Despite criticism of the surveillance bill, a recent poll found that 63 percent of French respondents were in favor of limitations on their online individual liberties in the name of increased security.

Yet the bill has many opponents. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the National Assembly last week as the bill was presented to show their opposition.

Growing dissent

Power Foule, a civil society organization, has collected over 2,000 signatures on its online petition against the bill. Founder François Chemillier says the bill gives a worrying amount of the public’s power to the government.

“It’s very similar to the Patriot Act in the United States,” says Mr. Chemillier. “We know from Obama’s experience that once this bill is implemented, it will be in our lives forever.”

Already the bill could have serious financial consequences for France’s telecommunications industry. Internet providers have threatened to take their business elsewhere if the bill goes through. In an op-ed published on April 9, they said, “the draft bill destroys freedoms, but it is also anti-economic and essentially inefficient for the objective it sets out.” They say it would allow intelligence agencies to place “black boxes” on their infrastructure to filter communications.

Meanwhile, a group of 10 organizations – including human rights groups and the French Magistrates Union – have denounced the bill in a joint statement for how it legalizes “highly intrusive surveillance methods.”

Ms. Duval says the bill would essentially disallow judges from being able to protect individual liberties because intelligence agencies could acquire personal data without their prior approval.

The Paris Bar Association has called the bill “unacceptable” and says it needs a complete overhaul, adding that it is profoundly dangerous to civil liberties. The bill is particularly worrisome for journalists, doctors, judges, and lawyers, as it does not allow protection for clients or source confidentiality.

As lawmakers work to pass the bill, it has already faced criticism from across Europe for its potential regional consequences.

Since the Paris attacks, leaders in the “border-free” Schengen zone have suggested better security coordination and data collection to monitor would-be terrorists. But Mr. Janning says that if not all European countries get on board with surveillance programs similar to France, there’s little hope that online activity of violent extremists could be effectively tracked around the region.

“This will not solve Europe’s eternal security problem because it will create a far-reaching fringe approach to it, which is likely not to be followed by a number of other countries,” says Janning. “It doesn’t help the cooperation of internal security agencies; it complicates it.”

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