Expanded Surveillance Powers in France Threaten Civil Liberties

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PARIS – The French government has granted law enforcement the power to secretly activate the cameras, microphones, and GPS of a suspect’s phone, following the passage of a controversial provision in a broader “justice reform bill.” The move, critics argue, creates an unsettling precedent and puts civil liberties at risk.

According to the People’s Gazette, this bill permits geolocation of crime suspects, and it extends to other devices like laptops, cars, and connected devices. The devices can be remotely activated to record sound and images of people suspected of terrorism, organized crime, and other serious offenses.

French digital rights advocacy group, La Quadrature du Net, argues that the provision “raises serious concerns over infringements of fundamental liberties.” They contend that it violates the “right to security, right to a private life and to private correspondence” and “the right to come and go freely.”

La Quadrature du Net

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti defended the bill, insisting that it would only apply to “dozens of cases a year.” Further amendments were added, specifying that remote surveillance would be permissible only “when justified by the nature and seriousness of the crime” and “for a strictly proportional duration” after a judge has given the green light.

The lawmakers assured that certain professions, deemed sensitive, including journalists, judges, lawyers, doctors, and MPs, would be exempt from this form of surveillance.

This provision in the justice bill has drawn comparisons with the controversial US Patriot Act. “We’re far away from the totalitarianism of ‘1984’,” argued Dupond-Moretti, implying that the law would aid in saving lives rather than restricting freedom.

Since 2015, in the aftermath of the terror attacks that shook the country, France has expanded its surveillance powers. The current legislation, colloquially referred to as the “Keeper of the Seal” bill, mirrors the US response to the 9/11 attacks and their ensuing security measures.

The comparison with the US’s approach to surveillance is apt. After 9/11, the US government used “roving bugs” to listen in on suspects, revealed in a court case concerning an organized crime family. These bugs can capture room audio, unlike traditional wiretaps that monitor wireless phone conversations and other electronic communications.

The roving bugs gave the FBI the ability to eavesdrop continuously on suspects who frequently change locations and use different phones to evade detection. Something that the Patriot Act further enabled the Federal Government to do.

The growing powers of surveillance in France, seemingly akin to those in the US, have sparked significant privacy concerns. As France steps towards an increasingly surveilled state, it remains to be seen how these new powers will be implemented, and what impacts they will have on the cherished liberties of its citizens.


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