Modern field guide to security and privacy

France moves closer to adopting expansive surveillance law

The French Senate overwhelming passed a data collection bill on Tuesday that would give its intelligence agencies new powers to monitor phone metadata and online activities.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters
France is close to adopting a surveillance law to give spy agencies new powers to collect electronic data. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is seen here in early June writing a text message during the Socialist Party Congress.

Just a week after President Obama signed a US law dialing back post-9/11 surveillance measures, France has taken a major step toward giving its spy agencies vast new powers in the wake of the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack.

The French Senate voted 251 to 68 in support of a new surveillance bill to give intelligence agencies more leeway when it comes to tapping phones and eavesdropping on e-mails without the permission of a judge. It would also grant law enforcement more power to monitor citizens without first going through the customary independent nine-person panel.

The vote essentially ensures the eventual adoption of a measure that would have seemed counter to traditional French views of privacy prior to the January attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine and subsequent assaults that left 17 people dead. Now, however, the latest polls show that 63 percent of French people favor the proposed surveillance bill.

According to its supporters, the aim of the surveillance bill is to give law enforcement more robust tools to track and monitor terrorist suspects and monitor other suspicious activity on the Web. It would let the government collect metadata from phone records and Internet activity, and give officials greater abilities when it comes to installing monitoring systems to track suspects.

Yet many critics of the measure have maintained that enacting a metadata collection programs similar to the US National Security Agency bulk phone records program started after 9/11 will not effectively prevent terrorist attacks. In studies of the NSA metadata program, several groups found that it was not essential to stopping attacks.

“This should not be considered a law against terrorism,” says Francois-Bernard Huyghe, a research director on cyberstrategy at the IRIS think tank in Paris. “First, it’s going to be very difficult to put in place, and second it’s going to be ineffective – the US already proved that. It leaves the door open for the administration to take advantage of its citizens and the country is going to start resembling the film 'Minority Report.' "

Much of the opposition to the French bill focused on a clause that would allow intelligence agencies to collect and analyze user metadata. Telecom companies have complained that spy agencies could effectively place “black boxes” on their infrastructure to monitor user communications. Many firms threatened in April to relocate their businesses outside of France if the bill passed.

Yet, despite this opposition and much debate among French lawmakers, the metadata portion of the bill remained in the version passed by the Senate. To appease critics, the government has said that the metadata search would be performed anonymously, using a set of algorithms to ensure personal privacy for its citizens. Still, that hasn't assuaged privacy advocates in France.

“Metadata says more about an individual than the contents of their conversations” since it captures locations, frequency of calls, and who someone is calling, says Maryse Artiguelong, a member of the French Human Rights League and a moderator at the Observatory for Digital Freedom, a privacy advocacy group. 

The latest version of the surveillance bill removes a provision that would have given police the power to more easily spy on prison inmates in France. 

That change didn't sit well with many who wanted the ability to use the bill to increase the monitoring of radical Islamists in France. Prisons in France have become a breeding ground for radical Islam. In fact, French prison inmate Djamel Bengal, serving a 10 year prison sentence for a plot to bomb the US Embassy in Paris, is believed to have radicalized two of the gunmen involved in the Paris attacks earlier this year.

While a strong majority approved the surveillance bill, its implementation is still some time away. It first has to go through a final decision by a panel of deputies, and could come up against the Constitutional Court.


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