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'France is not the US when it comes to spying'

Oliver Gee · 7 May 2015, 11:35

Published: 07 May 2015 11:35 GMT+02:00
Updated: 07 May 2015 11:35 GMT+02:00

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French MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of new anti-terror surveillance laws on Tuesday, despite vocal opposition from rights groups who lamented the end of France's sacred liberté.
The bill, which was unveiled just weeks after the deadly Paris terror attacks in January, has been fiercely debated in France although polls suggest it is backed by a majority of the public.
The new laws mean it will now be legal for intelligence services to place cameras and recording devices in private dwellings and install "keylogger" devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.
Authorities can also sweep up metadata that would be analysed for suspicious behaviour that can be stored for five years. Suspects could be placed under surveillance without a judge giving prior approval and so can anyone who happens to cross their paths.
Five dangers of France's new snooping laws
While France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls has long stressed that the bill "in no way allows a generalised surveillance of citizens" critics fear something more sinister.
Many protested in Paris the day before French MPs from all parties gave the bill the green light, holding signs comparing France to George Orwell's 1984, in which the world lives under an all-seeing surveillance system.
While some might compare France to Orwell's fictional state, others say the more appropriate comparison is with the United States, which passed its own contentious surveillance bill, known as the "Patriot Act", after the country experienced its own terror attacks in 2001.
"France finds itself in an oddly Bush-esque environment," wrote France's startup blog Rude Baguette.
"An unfavorable president, a country with a wounded ego and increasing unemployment – all of which has led many to get behind a law that, in any other environment, would get suppressed by France’s liberté, egalité, fraternité mentality."
Even though France's prime minister himself said that it was "a lie" to say the bill was France's own Patriot Act, the head of the Paris bar association said it was the PM who was lying. 
"It's a state lie," Pierre-Olivier Sur told the New York Times.
"This project was presented to us as a way to protect France against terrorism, and if that were the case, I would back it. But it is being done to put in place a sort of Patriot Act concerning the activities of each and everyone."
The Patriot Act has been far from popular in the US ever since it was introduced, with critics saying it was pushed through opportunistically after the September 11 attacks in New York. 
The New York Times went as far as to say that France was taking "a long stride in the opposite direction" to the US, considering that American lawmakers are in the process of reconsidering their own surveillance laws.
Some in France, meanwhile, fear the new bill will even lead to the type of mass snooping exposed by former US spy turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Jean-Charles Brisard, the chairman at the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, disagrees. 
"I think it's incorrect to say France is turning into the US, the Patriot Act contains many measures that didn't require the prior approval from any authorities except the FBI," he told The Local. 
Brisard says one of the chief differences is that in France surveillance measures will be monitored by the national commission for checking intelligence techniques' (CNCTR), made up of magistrates, MPs and experts. However critics doubt the power and independence of  this new body.
"We should put the bill into perspective," Brisard said. "The Snowden revelations have had a real impact on the public behavior toward the intelligence services, leading to suspicions and concerns over the use of intelligence techniques," he said.
"Just because there will be a broad collection of information in France doesn't mean there will be broad civilian surveillance.
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"The services will collect information anonymously, then they will decide on the basis of this information if there is a specific threat to be addressed. It's not true to call it a global surveillance of citizens." 
He added the law changes were good for France because they "legalized the tools we already used" which were "essential" in the fight against terror.
"Most of the surveillance methods were already used in France - they were simply illegal," he explained.
Brisard concluded that it was high time France updated its wiretapping laws anyway, especially considering the last set of laws were passed in 1991.
"We needed new laws to account for both the evolution of technology and the evolution of terror. Terrorists are behaving differently now, and are using technology differently too," he said. 
The surveillance bill is set to move to the upper house Senate for further debate before it officially becomes law.
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