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Demonstrators hold signs reading 'Stop to Mass Surveillance,' and 'Members of Parliament Protect our Freedom,' during a protest in Paris against the emergency government surveillance law. (Photo: Francois Mori/AP)

Invasive 'French Patriot Act' Moves Forward, Spurring Privacy Concerns

'This bill would take France a step closer to a surveillance where nothing is secret except the surveillance itself.'

Deirdre Fulton

The lower house of the French Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a measure authorizing expansive, unprecedented, and invasive surveillance of citizens and foreigners, with little judicial oversight. 

The new spying powers, developed over the course of the last year, gained momentum in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January that killed 17 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in Paris.

According to the Guardian, "despite opposition from green and hard-left MPs, the bill won the overwhelming backing of the majority of MPs from the Socialist and rightwing UMP parties, which said it was necessary to tackle the terrorist risk. The bill was passed in the national assembly by 438 votes to 86, with a handful of no votes from Socialist MPs."

"Increased security does not have to come at the price of reduced privacy. And the threat of terrorism must not be used to justify the mass monitoring of every French internet user's activity."
—Carly Nyst, Privacy International

The law, which will now be considered by the French senate, would allow authorities to spy on the digital and mobile phone communications of anyone linked, even incidentally, to a suspected "terrorist"—without having to obtain a warrant.

In addition, it requires internet service providers and phone companies to give up data upon request and permits intelligence services to bug rooms, cars, or phone lines and to track keystrokes on computers. Both French citizens and foreigners could be tapped.

The bar for triggering such surveillance appears to be low. The New York Times reports:

In the current text of the proposed law it states that the intelligence services can propose surveillance to protect "national independence, the integrity of French territory and national defense" and to "prevent terrorism."

It also can be used to "prevent attacks on the republican form of institutions," and to fight organized crime.

As Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, put it on Monday: "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."

Privacy advocates vehemently oppose the bill, which they call the "French Patriot Act"—an unfavorable comparison to the U.S. surveillance law.

Felix Tréguer, founder of La Quadrature du Net, a Paris-based digital rights group, told France 24: "The French intelligence agencies do not have the budget and financial means of the [U.S. National Security Agency], but the logic behind some of the bill's provisions perfectly mirrors what's going on in the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of the very broadly defined regime of international surveillance."

Tréguer described the bill as "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."

Critics, which include more than 800 Internet companies, web hosts, software developers, e-commerce firms, and other digital businesses, point out that the comparison to the U.S. Patriot Act is negative in more ways than one.

Al-Jazeera reports that France's national digital council, an independent advisory body, has come out against the proposed legislation, saying it "was akin to 'mass surveillance' which has 'been shown to be extremely inefficient in the United States'."

And some have accused lawmakers of capitalizing on January's tragedies in order to broaden spying capabilities.

In March, Privacy International legal director Carly Nyst declared:

The introduction of this law only two months after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is an attempt to broaden surveillance powers under the guise of preventing terrorism. Increased security does not have to come at the price of reduced privacy. And the threat of terrorism must not be used to justify the mass monitoring of every French internet user's activity. Should all of the proposed measures pass through the parliament without strong scrutiny and examination, France will be well on its way to becoming a surveillance state, and at the same time we will not be any safer from terrorist attacks.

The upper house of Parliament is expected to vote on the bill in June.

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