France: Halt rush towards surveillance state
French authorities will be handed extensive powers to monitor people online and offline if the National Assembly votes to pass a new surveillance bill, Amnesty International warned.
The organization said the prime minister’s sign-off without court approval did not provide adequate checks and balances.
This bill would take France a step closer to a surveillance state where nothing is secret except the surveillance itself.
"This bill would take France a step closer to a surveillance where nothing is secret except the surveillance itself. Even journalists, judges, politicians and people who have unwittingly come into contact with alleged suspects could be subject to invasive surveillance,” said Gauri van Gulik, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.
“French authorities could soon be bugging peoples’ homes, cars and phone lines without approval from a judge, even where there is no reasonable suspicion that they have done anything wrong.”
While the government presents the intelligence bill as a counter-terrorism measure, it would also allow the prime minister to authorise intrusive surveillance measures for several other broad and undefined goals such as “essential foreign policy interests”. It is unclear what the vague terms encompass. They could for example be directed at people organising peaceful protests.
At the prime minister’s say, French authorities would be able to hack into computers or mobile devices, track peoples’ locations and spy on emails, texts and other communications from a person they think may be in contact with someone involved, in suspicious activity, even if unintentionally.
The bill would allow security agents, among others, to place recording devices in cars and homes, use proximity sensors to track people’s movements and place key loggers on computers that record what is typed in real time. All without court approval.
French authorities could soon be bugging peoples’ homes, cars and phone lines without approval from a judge, even where there is no reasonable suspicion that they have done anything wrong.
For the purposes of preventing terrorism, the bill would also oblige internet and telecoms providers to place “black boxes” in their infrastructure that record “metadata” - who internet users write to, and when.
Instead of seeking the authorisation of a judge to approve surveillance, the prime minister has to consult a new “National Committee of Intelligence Technical Control”. However, it can only provide non-binding recommendations and has no power to prevent illegitimate spying.
In addition, crucially, the new bill empowers the prime minister to authorize the interception of communications “sent or received abroad”. Undefined, this could pave the way for indiscriminate mass surveillance of internet use where the servers – like Google’s - are located in another country. This would include the surveillance of any emails, even if they are sent to people in the same country, sensitive information in the cloud, confidential records online, including medical appointments, or information on internet searches.
The question of what conditions will be required for this surveillance to take place will be set down later in a public decree. The actual techniques used to carry out this surveillance will be defined by another, secret decree.
“This bill is too vague, too far-reaching and leaves too many unanswered questions. Parliament should ensure that measures meant to protect people from terror should not violate their basic rights,” said Gauri van Gulik.
If deputies in the National Assembly vote in favour of the bill, it then passes to another vote in the Senate. A special commission may be formed to analyse the bill before it passes into law. The bill was debated in Parliament from 13-16 April, after discussion in committee on 1 April.
The bill lists seven public interests for which intelligence services can carry out surveillance, these include promoting “essential foreign policy interests” and preventing “any form of foreign interference”, “collective violence which can affect national security” or “organised delinquency”.
Amnesty International is taking legal action against the USA and UK governments challenging indiscriminate mass surveillance powers which to a certain extent echo those the French government wants to adopt.
On 10 March, the American Civil Liberties Union took the USA to court on behalf of a broad group of organizations including Amnesty International USA. On 10 April, human rights groups including Amnesty International announced they had taken the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights.