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​A Look at France’s New Surveillance Laws in the Wake of the Paris Attacks

Just this year, France granted itself broad new surveillance powers. Here's how they may be used in the wake of the tragic attacks.

by Rachel Pick
Nov 15 2015, 8:21pm

Paris. Image: Wikimedia / Greenski

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, France passed its controversial "Intelligence Bill," allowing it to increase its surveillance powers. Now, in the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks that have left Paris in mourning for the second time this year, it's worth re-examining how the law might be put into action as intelligence-gathering accelerates.

The legislation, which was passed by French parliament in May, drew such strong opposition from the public that France President François Hollande referred it to the nation's Constitutional Council, which finally gave it the go-ahead in July. It has been likened to the US Patriot Act, and though French Prime Minister Manuel Valls chafes at the implication, it's easy to see the basis for the comparison.

Like the Patriot Act, the French law allows the government to monitor phone calls and emails of terrorism suspects without obtaining a warrant. It also requires internet service providers to collect metadata, which is then processed by an algorithm to detect strings of suspicious activity—a page taken right from the NSA's playbook.

Under the French law, surveillance operations are overseen by a committee led by Valls, but that committee cannot overrule Valls if they disagree with an action he wants to take. This leaves the ability to make security decisions dangerously centralized, according to some critics, like Paris Bar President Pierre-Olivier Sur. Sur publicly objected to the bill on the grounds that it is not subject to judicial control, saying it "seriously threatens civil liberties."

Amnesty International has also been a vocal detractor. Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Gauri van Gulik aid that "French authorities appear to want to mimic their American and British counterparts in allowing the authorities to intercept and access people's communications at will." Geneviève Garrigos, head of Amnesty International France, condemned the bill as being "in flagrant violation of the international human rights to privacy and free speech."

But the law also allows for some activities that go beyond even the provisions laid out by its international relatives. Under the intelligence bill, the French government may use IMSI catchers, which impersonate cell towers and are capable of recording metadata from phones within the catcher's range as well as tracking the phone's (and its owner's) location.

When the law was still up for debate, senator Cécile Cukierman argued that this metadata would prove both unwieldy and intrusive. She said that "information that reveals real threats will be collected—because everything will be collected—but who will find them?" and that the black boxes would create a state of "permanent surveillance."

There's also a provision that resembles an aggressive version of the infamous "sneak and peek" Patriot Act searches. As Re/code explains, "the law allows government agents to break into the homes of suspected terrorists for the purpose of planting microphone bugs, surveillance cameras, and to install keyloggers on their computers, devices that capture data on every keystroke and mouse click."

Valls, meanwhile, has been unmoved by criticism of the law, saying that the existing legislation was severely outdated. "The last intelligence law was done in 1991, when there were neither cellphones nor internet," Valls said. He celebrated when the law was passed with a tweet: "France now has a secure framework against terrorism that is respectful of freedoms. This is a major breakthrough."

Historically, governments have often sought to tighten surveillance over their citizens in the wake of tragic attacks, like those Paris has endured this year. As France reels from another senseless catastrophe, it will be well worth tracking how it handles its new intelligence powers.