A plan to roll out French government surveillance of emails and phone calls came before France’s National Assembly on Tuesday, sparking outrage from major online players such as Google and AOL.
The Military Programming Law would extend the government’s power to acquire internet-users’ data, as well as monitor email and telephone communications, without the need to be ratified in advance by a judge.
ASIC, the French Association of Internet Community Services, has called for a moratorium on the bill, which has already been given the Green light by the Senate. ASIC insists it is “not ok” for government bureaucrats to have “real-time access to internet data.”
The group – composed of major internet companies such as Google, AOL, Facebook and Dailymotion – has warned that the provisions of the plan go far beyond the fight against terrorism.
“In generically targeting ‘the prevention of criminality’, this plan will be applied to all violations [of the law],” ASIC said in a statement, pointing out that the Military Programming Law would extend electronic surveillance and data collection powers to the ministries of the interior, defense, budget, and finance.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Defense, for his part defended the plan, claiming that French citizens should be reassured by the fact that a “qualified person”, nominated by the prime minister (currently Jean-Marc Ayrault) would be in charge of all ministerial requests for the use of surveillance techniques.
“The National Supervising Commission on Security-related Interceptions (CNCIS), an independent administrative authority, will deal with the collection of login details and geolocation,” Le Drian was quoted as saying by BFMTV.
Indeed, one senior civil servant on Tuesday expressed his frustration with critics of the bill, pointing to the case of Mohammed Merah, an Al Qaeda-inspired gunman who killed seven people in south-western France in March, 2012.
"When the Merah affair happened, people were saying the police should have been able to prevent it. And now they're slamming law enforcement for trying to be preemptive [by using surveillance methods]," he told Le Figaro.
Looming fight over 'invasive' geolocation
The government of Socialist French President François Hollande, however, looks set for a clash with France’s highest appeals court, over the Military Programming Law’s provision for the use of geolocation involving mobile phones.
The Cour de Cassation in Paris ruled in October that any and all use of the technique by authorities – including police – must be given the green light by a judge in advance.
“Geolocation constitutes an invasion of privacy serious enough to require that it be carried out only under the supervision of a judge,” the court ruled, specifying that a public prosecutor would not have the requisite independence to authorize the use of the tactic.
One digital rights activist told The Local on Tuesday that proper oversight was crucial to any use of geolocation.
"It would be considered unacceptable for law enforcement agents to physically follow you around and track your movements in the offline world, without adequate oversight," he said, adding, "the exact same principle applies in the online world."
Tracing the location from which phone calls were sent, or text messages received, in the past, he emphasized, represented a "worrying new level of intrusion."
"It's impossible for law enforcement to travel through time and actually see where you were at a particular moment, say, two weeks ago. But geolocation allows for this, so it's particularly important that this power be properly supervised."
French-American tit-for-tat allegations
Tuesday’s parliamentary debate over the planned extension of surveillance powers comes after months of heated back-and-forth between French and American officials in the light of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about unprecedented US spying and electronic surveillance.
Back in August, The Local reported how a French court had opened a formal investigation into the PRISM program of electronic surveillance run by the US National Security Agency, and revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
On October 21st, France summoned the US ambassador to a meeting after French newspaper Le Monde published claims that the NSA had secretly taped 70 million phone calls made in France, in just one month.
However, little more than a week later, anonymous US officials alleged that those phone calls had been monitored by the French government itself, which then passed on information to the Americans.