Just as the United States Congress grapples with the prospect of its contentious Patriot Act expiring, being watered down or rewritten, the French government occupies center stage by potentially proposing its own version of the Patriot Act. If enacted, it would dramatically expand the government’s surveillance powers
In the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and other related terrorist violence, the measure has garnered support from all political parties as they say it will thwart terrorist attacks. But the proposed legislation has its cynics which portray it as just another government grab at power and a continued assault on personal privacy. Business leaders, most notably the French internet companies have joined in opposing the bill. According to The Verge,
“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.”
In defending its actions, the government contends that the surveillance operations would only be carried out on suspected terrorists, and that controls would be employed to stem abuses. Its defense rings somewhat hollow when considering the “surveillance-creep” which has occurred in the years subsequent to the passage of the Patriot Act in the US, where US lawmakers also assured citizens of protections. We know how that turned out! Prime Minister Manuel Vall’s opined in a speech to Parliament on Monday that,
“This is by no means an implementation of exceptional measures, nor the widespread surveillance of citizens. 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.”
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.
Critics of the measure contend that the promised controls are insufficient. For example, while the bill provides for the creation of a nine-member surveillance oversight commission, it’s powers extend only to advising the Prime Minister, and have no executive power or ability to override decisions. Further, the language contained in the initiative is so broad in defining targets that private citizens could be surveilled and implicated as a result.
Lining up in opposition to the proposed law are Amnesty International and the National Digital Council – the latter charged with advising the French government on technology issues. Other groups have joined the opposition, fearing further diminution of civil liberty and undermining of business activity.
Of special concern is the provision requiring telecoms to automatically filter internet traffic. Should the law pass, ISPs would have to install monitoring mechanisms-dubbed “black boxes” by the French media – that would detect in real time suspicious behaviors in internet metadata. Recordings could be stored for up to a month – metadata for up to five years.
Though France has arguably the strongest data protection and anti-terrorism laws in Europe, they haven’t been revised since 1991, so government reasoning that reform is overdue may have some validity, certainly in light of the events of last January that rocked Paris and the nation. Add to that the alarming increase of French nationals streaming to the Middle East and back, and the matter takes on even greater urgency.
Nevertheless, the French would do well to view the American debate over the Patriot Act as a cautionary tale of how even the best thought out solutions can run roughshod over civil liberties, and take heed.