22nd Feb 2024

French intelligence bill set to give PM sweeping powers

  • French PM Manuel Valls says the bill is needed to counter terrorist threats (Photo: Parti Socialiste)

French lawmakers on Wednesday (1 April) discussed an intelligence bill that aims to give sweeping surveillance powers to internal security agencies and the prime minister's office.

Announced a day after the museum terrorist attacks in Tunis, the bill allows agencies attached to the economy, defence and interior ministries to spy on people by hacking their computers or mobile phones without the need for a warrant.

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Anyone suspected of terrorism or terrorism links, even incidentally, could be a target.

Prime minister Manuel Valls has said the bill is needed to detect possible terrorist activities in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January.

His office would be granted news powers to order interceptions without having to resort to any court or judicial oversight.

The bill provides for a special commission that can only issue non-binding recommendations as a counter-balance.

Some politicians and many civil liberties groups have criticised the draft proposals.

Herve Morin, a former defence minister and member of the centrist UDI party, said he had "strong reservations" about the law in its current form.

Rights groups say the lack of early judicial control on surveillance increases the risk of government abuse and undermines privacy rights of people not suspected of any crime.

“Such mass surveillance systems will undermine internet users' privacy, have the potential to chill free expression, and could be subject to serious abuse,” said Privacy International, Amnesty International, FIDH, the French League for Human Rights and Reporters Without Borders in a joint statement.

The bill proposes implanting surveillance technology with Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to monitor communications for analysis.

Agencies would also be allowed to set up so-called IMSI-catcher devices to intercept the content of mobile phone communications. They can also install spyware to access instant messaging and photograph and film people in private spaces.

Paris-based civil liberties group La Quadrature du Net has described the bill as a “carte blanche for intelligence agencies and the executive”.

The group says the bill includes techniques used by US and British spy hubs by authoring the bulk collection of data and including provisions on international surveillance.

Reporters Without Borders says it is a threat to journalists because sources would no longer be secured or confidential.

Wording in the bill does not ban agencies to monitor reporters who may be acting as an “intermediary” to possible suspects.

Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the journalist organisation, last week said the law needs to “include safeguards for the right of journalists to work without being spied on, or else it will constitute a grave violation of media freedom.”

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