Jean-Loup Richet

New French surveillance law: From fear to controversy

January 07, 2014 1:41 PM EST

America's NSA scandal has been making headlines all over the world since it first came to light back in July.  Somehow, though, France's surveillance program has managed to fly under the radar for the most part.

Frederic Jacobs (cc by 2.0)

Just a few days after the news of the NSA scandal broke, French newspaper Le Monde revealed that France had a similar program which routinely swept up “nearly all … data transmissions, including telephone calls, e-mails and social media activity that come in and out of France.”  According to a recent report that was leaked by Edward Snowden and obtained by the UK's Guardian newspaper, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden all have the ability to tap into fibre optic cables - meaning that it's relatively easy for them to spy on phone and Internet activities.

In fact, more documents released by Snowden reportedly show that French intelligence agencies had given massive quantities of data to their counterparts in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Amazingly, all of this was going on while President François Hollande expressed ‘profound reprobation’ over the NSA revelations.  U.S. President Barack Obama even made a conciliatory phone call to Hollande and admitted that the situation raised “legitimate questions for our friends and allies.”

Even though France's actions haven't been talked about anywhere near as much as the NSA scandal has, the French government says it has begun working on new ways to legitimize these widespread powers of surveillance. A new law just passed by the French Senate defines the conditions under which intelligence agencies may survey citizen’s data - including telephone conversations, email correspondence, web browsing activity, and personal location data.

According to Giuseppe de Martino, the director of The Association des Services Internet Communautaires, or @sic, the new laws will allow the authorities to seize “all documents stocked in a ‘cloud’ service subscribed by a given Internet user” for anti-terrorism and organized crime investigations without any form of judicial oversight.  Under the Article 13 of the new law, both police and security forces will be able to gather all of this information in real time, without ever speaking to a judge.  They'll also be able to track the location of mobile devices in real time, again without ever getting a judge's permission.

However, officials say this isn't anything new.  They say these provisions have been in place since 1997 - or possibly even longer. Jean-Pierre Sueur, a senator from the Socialist Party, commented that “If [people are] angry about this, they ought to have been angry for 23 years.”

Not so, says France's Green Party.

In fact, they have begun a campaign to force the courts to review the new law.  They claim that it does a whole lot more than just regulate existing powers.  In fact, they argue that the new law actually expands these shadowy powers.

How so?

Before the law, surveillance was allowed in cases of national security and counter-terrorism.  Now, however, surveillance can take place in order to protect “the scientific and economic potential of France.” The Green Party claims that the legislation will harm France economically, with many businesses choosing not to invest in a country which has a reputation for spying on its own citizens, as well as foreign businesses. Several Internet and corporate groups as well as human rights organisations have also opposed the law as a threat to individual privacy or to France’s economic interests.

European officials have been volubly outraged by the recent allegations of the U.S.’s spying, with European Union President Martin Schultz commenting that, “If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on E.U.-U.S. relations.”

However, as many U.S. officials pointed out in the wake of the scandal, Europeans are actually more likely to be spied upon by their own governments than American citizens. Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the NSA, has pointed to research done by the Max Planck Institute which found that “you're 100 times more likely to be surveilled by your own government if you live in the Netherlands or you live in Italy [. And] you're 30 to 50 times more likely to be surveilled if you're a French or a German national than in the United States.” Lawyer Christopher Wolf conducted a study which found that intelligence agencies in Europe require less judicial approval for their activities than their U.S. counterparts.

In the U.S., Barack Obama’s own panel of experts have reportedly advised the President to end the program that caused the furore, because it's so easily abused and, furthermore, it's not necessary to prevent attacks.  The report warns, “We cannot discount the risk, in light of the lessons of our own history, that at some point in the future, high-level government officials will decide that this massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is there for the plucking.”

If the U.S. does decide to put an end to PRISM, we can only hope that other countries - including France - will follow suit. However, with Hollande having recently declared war on “the tranquillity of anonymity that allows unspeakable things to be said” on the internet, it looks like respecting the privacy of his citizens is the furthest thing from his mind.