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With New Spy Bill, France OKs Mass Surveillance

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Demonstrators hold signs reading ‘Stop to Mass Surveillance,’ and ‘Members of Parliament, Protect our Freedoms!’ during a protest in Paris in May against the surveillance bill, which passed into law late Thursday night. (Photo: Amnesty International France)

France’s highest constitutional authority on Thursday approved a sweeping, controversial new surveillance law that greatly expands the government’s spying powers, despite widespread human rights concerns.

Making only minor changes to the legislation, which was approved by Parliament in May, the Constitutional Council ruled on Thursday that the bill generally aligns with the French constitution—even as privacy and civil liberties groups continue to call attention to its egregious rights violations.

“By validating almost all surveillance measures provided in the Surveillance Law adopted on 25 June, the French Constitutional Council legalizes mass surveillance and endorses a historical decline in fundamental rights,” said La Quadrature du Net, a Paris-based digital rights and civil liberties organization. “Only international surveillance has been deemed to be non compliant to the Constitution.”
“This law is in flagrant violation of the international human rights to privacy and free speech.”
—Geneviève Garrigos, Amnesty International France

The law gives French intelligence agencies power to tap phones and hack into computers; sweep up and analyze metadata of millions of civilians; and plant secret microphones, cameras, and ‘keystroke loggers’ in the homes of “suspected terrorists”—all without approval from a judge.

It also gives the government the power to authorize surveillance for reasons as vague as “major foreign policy interests” and preventing “organized delinquency.”

The government justified the bill by invoking recent attacks in Paris, which saw 17 people killed by gunmen in January at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher deli. President Francois Hollande’s move to have the law approved by the Constitutional Council is “unusual,” the Guardianwrites. But while it is rare, Hollande’s motives are clear—the decision by the Council ensures that the law will not be challenged as illegal in the future.

By approving the bill, the Council “has disavowed its role as protector of fundamental rights and liberties,” La Quadrature continued. “By refusing to implement effective control over the intelligence services, it is rubber-stamping a historic step back for privacy and freedom of communication, thus undermining the very foundations of democracy. This evening the reason of state was brutally imposed over the rule of law.”

One of the most controversial provisions in the bill requires internet service providers and telecommunications companies to install equipment, referred to in previous debates as “algorithmic black boxes,” that sift through internet traffic and metadata for so-called “terrorist” activity and alert authorities when flagged. Opponents have warned that portion of the bill will “create permanent surveillance,” as Communist Senator Cécile Cukierman said during a June debate—a charge which officials deny.
“This evening the reason of state was brutally imposed over the rule of law.”
—La Quadrature du Net

The law comes into effect just two days after the United Nations Committee for Human Rights released a report warning that the bill “grants overly broad powers for very intrusive surveillance on the basis of vast and badly defined objectives” and calling on France to “guarantee that any interference in private life must conform to principles of legality, proportionality and necessity.”

Amnesty International France chief Geneviève Garrigos said on Friday, “This law is in flagrant violation of the international human rights to privacy and free speech. Someone investigating the actions of the French government or French companies or even organizing a protest, could be subjected to extremely intrusive forms of surveillance. Mass surveillance tools, including black boxes, would put the internet communications of the entire population and beyond within reach of the French authorities.”

And Privacy International, which submitted recommendations this month to the UNHCR on the right to privacy in France, said the bill legalized hacking. “Its use by any state authorities, particularly intelligence agencies, must be highly regulated to protect against abuses of power. Yet the bill makes no provision for judicial authorisation or oversight of hacking powers,” the organization wrote.