File photo: Protesters march during a protest rally in Paris, France, Thursday, March 23, 2023. AP
The proposed law plainly stipulates that the procedure can be executed “without the knowledge or consent of its owner or possessor” but is limited to suspects involved in terrorism, organized crime and other illegal activities punishable by five or more years in prison.
The language authorizing eavesdropping is contained in a broader reform bill aimed at “modernizing” penal procedures, reflecting what polls indicate is a public demand for more law and order.
“The goal of this law is clear: a faster, clearer, modern justice,” French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said when he presented the legislation in the spring.
Left-wing parties generally oppose the surveillance provision, but President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party can potentially rally the conservative The Republicans party in the lower house of the French Parliament to pass the bill. The Senate, which the opposition right controls, approved the legislation in May.
The justice minister proposed the high-tech hunt for suspects as an alternative to long-standing police surveillance practices, such as wiretapping a suspect’s vehicle and house, which he deemed no longer viable and increasingly dangerous for investigators.
“The technique today is faulty,” Dupond-Moretti told lawmakers in the lower house, the National Assembly, this month. “Why would we deprive ourselves of new technologies?” When some parliamentarians expressed concerns over privacy rights, the minister replied, “By crying wolf, you are no longer credible.”
Besides limiting use of high-tech spying on suspects to crimes punishable by at least five years in prison, the legislation contains other controls. The goal of tapping a connected device must be locating someone in real time, and the investigating judge in a case must give the green light. In addition to activating location services, the measure would also allow investigators to activate a suspect's phone camera and microphone.
Critics claim the provision still would inevitably lead to abuses of power by French police, who in the past have faced allegations of misusing their authority, brutality and racism.
“We already see that there’s a lot of abuse in France today,” said Bastien Le Querrec, a lawyer with French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net. “In reality, who decides on the seriousness of an event in an investigation? It’s the police, the prosecutors, the investigating judge. Nothing in this bill will prevent abuse.”
In April, French lawmakers passed a law to allow the use of artificial intelligence and drones in mass video surveillance during the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris.
Terrorist attacks in France over the past decade and recent riots triggered by the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in a Paris suburb last month have made security a government focus as the country prepares to host athletes and visitors from around the world next year.
Violence also erupted this year during numerous demonstrations protesting Macron’s decision to raise the French retirement age from 62 to 64. But rights advocates fear the government is capitalizing on safety concerns that many people see as reasonable to pursue draconian measures.
“The use of surveillance technologies cannot be the systematic response to security issues,” Katia Roux, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International France, said in an interview.
“The impact on human rights of these technologies must be taken into account before any normalization of their use. Under the guise of legitimate objectives that are linked to security, these technologies also promote violations of human rights, the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”
Police surveillance via a suspect’s phone and other connected devices could last for up to six months at a time, according to the bill. Certain professionals, including journalists, lawyers, and members of the parliament, would be exempt.
“Sadly, yet again, France is a leader in a security strategy where we approach security by surveilling everybody," ” lawyer Le Querrec said. "It raises questions on the state of democracy and the state of French institutions.”