France unveils ‘snooping bill’ in wake of Paris attacks

Bertrand Guay, AFP file picture | Two French police cars are parked in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on January 8, 2015 a day after terrorists stormed satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people

Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled Thursday a bill that would make it easier for French intelligence services to deter potential terror threats, allowing agents to snoop through emails and intercept phone calls involving suspected terrorists.


The security measures have come under fierce attack by rights groups who say they would jeopardise citizens’ rights to privacy.

But in the wake of the deadly jihadist attacks in Paris in January, and a day after the bloody massacre at the Bardo museum in Tunisia in which two French nationals were among the 23 people killed, Valls said a new law was necessary as France faces “an unprecedented terrorist threat”.

"There cannot be a lawless zone in the digital space," he said, adding that France’s current rules on counter-terrorism surveillance are based on a law dating back to 1991 -- long before Internet and mobile phone technology was part of people’s daily lives.

"Often we cannot predict the threat, the services must have the power to react quickly."

The measures allow authorities to spy on the digital and mobile communications of anyone linked to a "terrorist" enquiry without prior authorisation from a judge, and forces Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and phone companies to give up data upon request.

Intelligence services will also have the right to place cameras and recording devices in homes and install so-called keyloggers, devices that record key strokes on a targeted computer.

Under the new rules, authorities will be able to keep recordings for a month, and metadata for five years.

'Not a French Patriot Act'

Valls sought to allay fears that the bill, which will be debated in the National Assembly from April 13, was a French version of the "Patriot Act", which the United States used to authorise blanket spying powers after the attacks there on September 11, 2001.

"This is by no means an implementation of exceptional measures, nor the widespread surveillance of citizens. The bill makes clear that this enhanced monitoring will only concern terrorist communications, it demonstrates that there will be no mass surveillance ... this is not a French Patriot Act," he said.

FRANCE 24’s Luke Brown said that: “This new law is all about (trying to) strike a balance between war on terrorism and being faithful to French values.”
“The January attacks have added a sense of urgency to the need to change the laws and to increase the surveillance capacities of the French state,” he said.

To ensure that the state does not abuse this new scope of surveillance in any way, Brown explained that any surveillance operation will need to be justified by the prime minister’s office before they take place.

Procedures will also be limited in duration and a new watchdog will be established to provide oversight “before, during and after” an operation. In addition, an independent judge will be able to interfere with an ongoing operation at any time if he or she finds it unjustified.

'Expensive and inefficient’

But despite Valls’s reassurances, the bill has drawn sharp criticism from civil rights groups and Internet companies alike who fear that the bill will undermine French people’s right to privacy.

The National Digital Council, a consultative body, took aim at the plans to sweep up huge amounts of metadata using automated systems.

"This approach has proved extremely inefficient in the United States despite astronomical costs," Tristan Nitot, a member of the council, said.

The bill's presentation also coincided with criticism from Europe's top rights body over France's recent decision to block websites accused of condoning terrorism, warning that restricting liberties in a bid to fight extremism was a "serious mistake".

Despite the criticisms, polls show that the French in general want to step up surveillance in the wake of the January attacks in and around Paris that left 17 people dead.

An Ipsos survey for Europe 1 radio station and Le Monde daily at the end of January showed 71 percent of people were in favour of general bugging without the need to get a warrant from a judge.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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