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France wants to fight terrorism by spying on everyone

Prime minister says proposed surveillance law ‘is not a French Patriot Act,’ but civil liberties groups say it goes too far


French lawmakers have spent the past four days debating a controversial anti-terrorism bill that, if passed, would dramatically expand the government’s surveillance powers. The law’s backers describe it as a necessary measure to thwart terrorist attacks, and it has strong support on both sides of the aisle. But the bill has drawn sharp criticism from French internet companies over fears that it could harm business, and from privacy advocates who say it would severely curtail civil liberties.

The proposed law, introduced in Parliament on Monday, would allow the government to monitor emails and phone calls of suspected terrorists and their contacts, without seeking authorization from a judge. Telecommunications and internet companies would be forced to automatically filter vast amounts of metadata to flag suspicious patterns, and would have to make that data freely available to intelligence services. Agents would also be able to plant cameras and bugs in the homes of suspected terrorists, as well as keyloggers to track their online behavior.

This week’s debate comes more than three months after gunmen killed 17 people in a string of attacks that began at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Following the attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls called for stronger surveillance of social media websites and digital communications, raising fears that the government would respond with its own version of the Patriot Act — the sweeping anti-terror legislation that the US passed following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Valls sought to quell those concerns when he announced the bill last month, telling reporters that surveillance operations would only be carried out on suspected terrorists, and that controls would be put in place to prevent abuse.

“This is by no means an implementation of exceptional measures, nor the widespread surveillance of citizens,” he said. “The bill makes clear that this enhanced monitoring will only concern terrorist communications, it demonstrates that there will be no mass surveillance… this is not a French Patriot Act.” In a speech to Parliament on Monday, he added that the bill “has nothing to do with the practices revealed by Edward Snowden,” referring to the widespread surveillance conducted by the US National Security Agency.

But critics say the law gives disproportionate power to the office of the prime minister, and that the proposed controls don’t go far enough. The bill calls for the creation of a nine-person commission to conduct oversight of surveillance operations, but it is only authorized to advise the prime minister’s office, not override it. Civil rights groups also say the bill’s language is dangerously broad in defining legitimate targets, potentially implicating civilians as well as suspected terrorists.

“Suddenly, you’re in a system where the government has full power, full control over intelligence services,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet, an advocacy officer at the London-based watchdog Privacy International. “If we learn anything from history it’s that giving full power to governments on surveilling citizens is really not a good idea.”


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