Do not worry, the prime-minister is looking over!

We, the French, did not miss the opportunity to mock the United States of America, which, after 11 September 2001, have sunk into an all-out monitoring policy. Fortunately, the French, much smarter than the Americans, are immune to this kind of mislead. Political responses to the terrorist attacks of 7 to 9 January 2015 in Paris is an opportunity to prove it ...

Oh! The following warning is needed: French people do not use “not” when being ironic. You will have to do with it. By the way, I am glad you are reading my blog.

There it is, the subject of my first entry to this blog. I wish it was not this one. Unfortunately, given the current situation, it may become a recurring topic for these pages.

As this entry concerns a French debate, I must apologies, as most of the links I will give lead to French speaking website.

What is it that makes me particularly react?

A new bill was presented to the French Council of Ministers on 19 March 2015 concerning intelligence. The debate on this bill in the French National Assembly – in emergency procedure – began on 13 April, before a nearly empty chamber. If it is a good thing updating the legal framework concerning intelligence practices, several provisions of the text are truly disturbing. However, it is not just about the bill. It is also about the little reactions it provokes among French politics.

Right the day after the great solidarity demonstration in Paris, that is to say, 12 January 2015, former French Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant said that certain freedoms could easily be given up. As he seems to be one of those who think that there can be a “war against terrorism”, I am surprised that there was no real response to this surrendering act.

However, on one point Claude Guéant is right: it is not difficult to give up freedom. But then, you have to suffer the consequences, while it can be quite hard to get it back. Obviously, the terrorists attacked our freedom. Abdicate it does look like a victory for them.

As always, the debate is reduced to “all or nothing”. If one is concerned about attacks against freedoms, then she/he is accused to defend terrorists’ freedom. That is one of the problems in the current debate, or rather the lack of debate: any expression of concern, though justified, is considered to be a fantasy, or the consequence of a lack of information (omitting to give this information), or being lax. This ended up in getting the idea that there would be no alternative. Yet, if the defenders of the bill were so assured, it would be so much easier to simply entitle the provisions made to prevent abuses.

No alternative, really? Would a tougher surveillance bill have prevented the tragedy?

According a recent survey of French newspaper Le Monde, one can seriously doubt it. It appears that it is neither the law nor the controller, but its own mistakes, that caused the dgsi (the French intelligence service) was unable to prevent the attack. This is indeed human errors within the dgsi that made it blind.

To err is human.

What is more of the devil is that the dgsi, still according to the survey, has also set up a deceitful communication, aimed at pretending the fault was on the cncis, the independent commission responsible for regulation. The dgsi do not only refuses to accept its errors, but also seek to get rid of regulation. All the ingredients are gathered together for a blind confidence in this institution.

Moreover, precedents exist. Some have even caused a stir.

Disclosures made by Edward Snowden recalled a natural tendency that Montesquieu had formalised as early as 1758 in Book XI of The Spirit of Laws:

‘It is an eternal experience that everyone who has power tends to abuse them (...) To prevent power abuse, by the arrangement of things, power must stops power.’

In this case, the nsa has been endowed with the power to create an automated, widespread surveillance of the entire global telecommunications. This is without counter-power. Very surprisingly, the nsa made systematic monitoring of the entire global telecommunications.

However, I consider these revelations were hardly followed by protest among French politics.

Of course, France, heir of the Enlightenment, is immune to such practices. That is the reason several ngos have recently filed a complaint against dgse monitoring practices.

Another element to doubt that this bill could have avoided the tragedies of 7 to 9 January 2015, as well as the shootings of march 2012, is that we now know that none of their doers have used the Internet or mobile phone as part of their terrorist acts.

Still, the provisions of the bill causes a wide spectrum of data collection and monitoring. That is, a very broad power, which will therefore tend to abuse of power.

To me, this is the essential point: if a state has some legitimacy to sometimes analyse communications in its territory, this must be done within a strict legal framework. I consider the implication in implementing this legal framework a good thing. Precisely, this framework raises questions. This is one of the reasons this bill has attracted a motley galaxy of opponents. In this galaxy, one can find associations acting on freedoms on the Internet, such as La Quadrature du Net, or the French Data Network. But also organisations concerned with freedoms such as Reporters Without Borders or the League of Human Rights. But also state regulators and justice organisations such as the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés or the Syndicat de la magistrature. But also professional groups such as the cgt police or the Association française des éditeurs de logiciels. Such an opposition cannot be simply rejected as a fantasy, a willingness to defend the liberties of terrorists, or no reading of the bill.

French laws on intelligence are inadequate to the present, dating back to a previous era where mobile phones and the Internet was not as developed. Updating them is therefore welcome. That said, within the democratic framework, it seems necessary that the following principles are assured:

  • The decision to intrude the privacy of a citizen must necessarily be taken under the authority of a judge.
  • It is important that a commission controls intelligence practices, before them being made as well as afterwards.
  • There must be safeguards for the protection of sources of journalists.
  • The usefulness of the “black box” is questionable. However, if it is to be implemented, then it is essential that the algorithms it uses as well as its implementation are known. This would not weaken it, on the contrary. For instance, gnu/Linux and *bsd systems provide a much higher degree of security that can be obtained with Microsoft Windows and os x. It turns out that the open nature of these first two systems is one of the points permitting this increased security.
  • Regarding private data, it is the role of the cnil to regulate their collection. It should therefore be part of the process.

None of these issues were fully insured in the original bill. Anyway, it is perfectly possible to amend it in such a way that they would be. The principle of democracy is that citizens mingle with what concerns them. Therefore, I think it is appropriate to call our national representatives, that is to say the deputies, on these vital issues.

Viewed from here, it gives the impression that France is slightly turning into a surveillance state. Yet with some effort, it is possible to ensure that this will not be the case.

Published by

Yoann Le Bars

A researcher and teacher with slightly too many interests to sum this up …

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