France approves ‘Big Brother’ surveillance powers
UN criticises ‘excessively broad’ measures, which include computer-hacking
French president François Hollande took the unusual step of referring the legislation to the constitutional council to ensure it would not be challenged as unlawful. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
France’s highest authority on constitutional matters has approved a controversial bill that gives the state sweeping new powers to spy on citizens.
The constitutional council made only minor tweaks to the legislation that human rights and privacy campaigners as well as the United Nations have described as paving the way for “very intrusive” surveillance and state-approved eavesdropping and computer-hacking.
In a report published on Friday, the 18-strong United Nations Committee for Human Rights warned the surveillance powers granted to French intelligence agencies were “excessively broad”.
It said the the bill “grants overly broad powers for very intrusive surveillance on the basis of vast and badly defined objectives” and called on France to “guarantee that any interference in private life must conform to principles of legality, proportionality and necessity”.
Other critics have labelled it the French “Big Brother” act, likening it to the tyrannical and sinister government surveillance in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, calling it as a “historic decline in fundamental rights” and an attack on democracy.
Amnesty International warned that the French state was giving itself “extremely large and intrusive powers” with no judicial control.
The French president, François Hollande, had taken the unusual step of referring the legislation to the constitutional council to ensure it would not be challenged as unlawful.
The Socialist government justified the bill, which allows intelligence agencies to tap phones and emails and hack computers without permission from a judge, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris in January, including at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher shop, that left 17 people dead.
“From now on, France has a security framework against terrorism that respects liberties. It’s decisive progress,” the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, wrote in a tweet.
The bill was passed in June by an overwhelming number of French MPs, despite opposition from green and far-left parliamentarians and freedom groups.
It gives the country’s secret services the right to eavesdrop on the digital and mobile phone communications of anyone linked to a “terrorist” inquiry and install secret cameras and recording devices in private homes without requesting prior permission from a judge.
Intelligence agencies can also place “keylogger” devices on computers that record key strokes in real time. Internet and phone service providers will be forced to install “black boxes” – complex algorithms – that will alert the authorities to suspicious behaviour online. The same companies will be forced to hand over information if asked. Recordings can be kept for a month, and metadata for five years.
A special advisory group, the National Commission for the Control of Intelligence Techniques, made up of magistrates, MPs and senators from the upper house of parliament, will be consulted instead of a judge.
The constitutional council struck out an article in the bill that would have allowed the intelligence services and authorities to bypass the commission in emergency situations, declaring the clause was “manifestly disproportionate to the right to privacy”.
Another clause allowing them to put people outside France under surveillance was also thrown out by the council as too vague.
On Friday, after considering the legislation, the UN human rights committee concluded: “The committee is particularly concerned that the law on intelligence, adopted the 24 June 2015, grants overly broad powers for very intrusive surveillance on the basis of vast and badly defined objectives, without prior authorisation of a judge and without adequate and independent controls.”
Privacy International said the bill legalised hacking, which it said was “an extremely intrusive form of surveillance”.
“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,” it added.
The non-profit association La Quadrature du Net, which defends the rights and privacy of internet users, described the law as “wicked” and issued a statement headlined “Shame on France”.
“By validating almost all surveillance measures provided in the Surveillance Law adopted on 25 June, the French constitutional council legalises mass surveillance and endorses a historical decline in fundamental rights,” it said, branding the decision “extremely disappointing”.
It added: “Bucking the trend across Europe, where a number of jurisdictions have come out strongly against mass surveillance, the French constitutional council has disavowed its role as protector of fundamental rights and liberties.
“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.”
It added the “reason of state” had been “brutally imposed over the rule of law”.