Lawmakers back spy bill dubbed ‘French Patriot Act’
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French lawmakers voted in favour Tuesday of a new law granting the state sweeping surveillance powers, despite criticism from civil society groups that have dubbed the bill the “French Patriot Act”.
The bill passed the National Assembly with 438 votes in favour and just 86 against after it gained the backing of the two main parties – the ruling Socialists and the centre-right UMP. The bill will now go up before the French parliament’s upper house, the Senate, in June.
The latest intelligence bill is one of several government reforms in the wake of the January 7-9 Paris attacks that left 17 dead. France remains on high alert and has received repeated threats from jihadist groups, including the Islamic State (IS) group in the Syria-Iraq region.
Rights groups, however, have slammed the new proposals, calling the raft of measures a “French Big Brother”.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 Tuesday, Felix Tréguer, founder of La Quadrature du Net -- a Paris-based group defending cyber rights --, warned that civil liberties were being overlooked in the push for reforms following the January attacks.
“The fact is the law was being prepared for a long time,” said Tréguer. “The bill’s advocates wanted a legal framework for the French intelligence agencies, which is a good thing. But the government is actually using the Paris attacks as an excuse for acting against terrorism, but the law is much broader than that. The range of motives that can be invoked to engage in intelligence collection include industrial and scientific espionage, monitoring social movements and so on.”
The authors of the bill, however, deny it will be used for mass surveillance and reject comparisons with the US Patriot Act passed a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"We are not going for widespread monitoring because the US [case] has shown that to be useless,” said Jean-Jacques Urvoas, a Socialist Party MP. “This is not going to be run on a predictive basis, we simply aim to ensure enhanced monitoring of those identified as threats.”
In the ‘realm of the intelligence superpowers’
Under the bill, private residences can be monitored using geo-location measures, mobile communications can be intercepted, and web usage and communication can be monitored with the help of so-called “black boxes” attached to servers.
Black boxes are complex algorithms that Internet providers will be forced to install to flag up a pattern of suspicious behaviour online and are among the most controversial of the bill’s proposals
A poll published last month showed that nearly two-thirds of French people were in favour of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism.
Only 32 percent of those surveyed in the CSA poll for the Atlantico news website said they were opposed to freedoms being reduced, although this proportion rose significantly among young people.
Civil rights activists say the measures are not aimed solely at the prevention of terrorism but also will be used for foreign policy, as well as economic and scientific interests.
“The French intelligence agencies do not have the budget and financial means of the [USA’s] NSA (National Security Agency), but the logic behind some of the bill’s provisions perfectly mirrors what’s going on in the US and the UK in terms of the very broadly defined regime of international surveillance,” said Tréguer. “The bill is a way for France to retain its rank in the realm of the intelligence superpowers…the bill is a way of continuing the arms race in terms of accumulating new surveillance powers.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, however, has fiercely defended the bill, saying that to compare it to the mass surveillance "Patriot Act" introduced in the United States after the 9/11 attacks was a "lie".
He has pointed out that the previous law on wiretapping dates back to 1991, "when there were no mobile phones or Internet," which makes the new bill crucial in the face of extremist threats.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)