Ever since the Paris terror attacks in November of last year, the French government has been pushing for more and more surveillance of its citizens. On 30 October 2016, that resulted in the creation of an illegal database containing the details of 60 million French citizens.
France’s Socialist Party (PS) has created the enormous database under the guise of necessary for national security and as part of the current ‘state of emergency’ (which is due to continue into the early part of next year). It is seen by many people as being a direct threat to democratic rights in the country and in particular to citizens who oppose government-imposed austerity and war.
TES Surveillance Treasure Trove
The database is called “Secure Electronic Titles” (TES) and it brings together personal and biometric data for nearly all of France’s population. It was officially launched last Tuesday in the Yvelines region and will be extended across France over the coming months, with a view to completion in the early part of 2017.
The illegal database, which has been created in secrecy, was first proposed in 2011. At that time, the National Commission on Information-Processing and Liberties (CNIL) heavily criticized the idea, saying that although biometric data could serve a use for identifying people it should not be freely accessible in a centralized vault.
Nearly Everyone Affected
The new TES replaces an older version of the database that contained passport and ID card data from the National Management Database (FNG). Sadly for French citizens, it also illegally adds a digital photo of the face, fingerprints, eye color, weight, and both physical and electronic addresses (IP addresses) to the treasure trove of data. That data will be stored for every citizen over the age of 12 and will be kept on record for between 15 and 20 years.
The database is illegal, in that it violates previously set limits on the use of biometric data. That data, although permissible for authentication purposes, should not be used to remotely identify people without their knowledge. As such the new TES database is in direct opposition of the ruling by the French Constitutional Council, which in 2012 decided biometrics could only be used for authentication (and never for identifying purposes).
Secret and illegal
There is concern within France that the secretly created database – imposed during the state of emergency that has seen 24/7 armed patrols on the streets of Paris – will easily be employed for surveillance purposes. French magistrate, Guillaume Desgens-Pasanau, has made the following comment:
“Once the database of 60 million people is there, one can easily add a search function, for instance. It is quite easy, as it is regulated via a decree and therefore does not require new legislation.”
With so much data in one place, there is no doubt that the ability to search the data at will could have severe consequences for surveillance in France. Especially when one considers that the French police, the gendarmerie, French intelligence services, Interpol, and customs will all be able to use TES in addition to the existing surveillance infrastructure.
Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, President at CNIL, has come forward with her grave concerns about the new central database:
“It is very clear that we are not dealing with a database whose ultimate goal is to struggle against identity theft … This large-scale mechanism raises fears that it can be used for other purposes, not today, but in the coming period.”
Fear and Loathing in France
The French magazine, l’Observateur, has described the database as “terrifying” and France 24 has commented that it is “the first time the country has collected population data on such a scale since the start of the Nazi Occupation in 1940.” Such is the strength of feeling against the database within the country.
Perhaps most frightening of all, is the possibility that if France was overtaken by an even more right-wing government, the middle class and certain minorities could be put at severe risk of discrimination should they oppose the regime. Mira Kamdar, a writer for the International New York Times, has also come forward to express strong feelings against the TES database:
Some people have even compared the database to the US’ Patriot Act, a comparison that has been swiftly rejected by the French Prime Minister. Dave Lindorff, founder of This Can’t Be Happening, however, feels that the comparison is fair:
“Of course, there are [similarities], and that’s why he is rejecting the comparison – because everyone is outraged at what the NSA has been doing. So, he’s saying “Ours is different.” But it’s not different. In fact, it’s worse in one sense than the Patriot Act because NSA authorizations have expressly said that they are not allowed to use them for criminal investigations, therefore terrorism investigations.”
In France, that distinction has not been made, and the data will be available to the authorities indiscriminately. Felix Treguer co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, had the following to say,
“It’s not just about terrorism; it allows the intelligence agencies to resort to surveillance for broad range of motives: scientific, economic espionage or monitoring social movements. So it’s really not just about terrorism and some of the measures really come down to legalizing mass surveillance. This is of course a very dangerous path.”
Possible Cyber Threat
The possibility for abuse is striking, with so much valuable data held in one place. The fear of a hack comparable to that of the US Office of Personnel Management should ring serious alarm bells. On that occasion, the fingerprints of 5.6 million US federal employees (and other data of 21 million employees in total) was stolen by hackers. That number would be eclipsed massively should the French people’s 60 million fingerprints (and other valuable personal data) be compromised by cyber criminals or a foreign government agency.