The French government's new surveillance law opens the door to NSA-style mass surveillance

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Marco Werman: So, that French version of the Patriot Act I just mentioned, it would beef up France’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. Officials say it could help stop the next Charlie Hebdo-style attack. Opponents say more intelligence gathering means less privacy. Here’s how Time Magazine’s Paris correspondent Vivienne Walt describes the bill.


Vivienne Walt: Well, basically it looks a lot like some of the surveillance measures that the US has in place and that France has not until now. It will allow, for example, the government to demand that telecommunications companies install what they call “black boxes” on their networks in order to scoop up data on a large scale metadata, as we call it. That’s one of the main objectives of this law that will also, for the first time, coordinate all sorts of different strands of the intelligence community under one big surveillance organization, which goes by the rather cumbersome name of the National Commission for Control of Intelligence Techniques.


Werman: Well, I’m sure the acronym just rolls off the tongue. So, that black box that you mentioned, I know that’s one of the heavily-debated parts of this bill in France. Aside from enforcing it, how does that compare to what the NSA, for example, does here in the US?


Walt: Well, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, has been at pains in recent weeks to call this not the Patriot Act. Of course, the French immediately drew the connections between this new act and the US Patriot Act. And, in fact, there are some very clear similarities between the two. Essentially what this will do is allow the government to have emergency surveillance declarations, if you like, or commands. It will allow them to effectively bypass a fairly established and lengthy legal process in order to install eavesdropping, for example, and effectively tap into people’s internet networks most of all.


Werman: Manuel Valls, as you said, at pains to explain that this is not the Patriot Act, but it sounds like the French are playing catch-up with this bill with the US and the UK at a time when the surveillance parts of the Patriot Act are due to expire June 1st and there’s a heavy debate about it right now.


Walt: Yes, essentially the French are looking very much behind the times on this and you might say in some ways it’s a way to make up for the great failures of intelligence before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January. If you recall, the folks that were responsible for those series of attacks, there were three men involved, had all been on the radar, at one point or another, of the intelligence agencies in France and also in the US. And the French had simply dropped the ball on it and had been seen to be fairly ineffectual in following them effectively in a way that could have stopped the January attacks. So, the government has had to make up for a lot of lost  ground on this, and it ought to be said that there’s tremendous support in parliament for this bill as a result of the attacks in January.


Werman: Vivienne, you’ve lived in France for years. Do you feel this is a new moment, in terms of privacy, for the French? Does the prospect of less potential privacy comfort you or worry you?


Walt: Well, I certainly think that the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for a lot of people, was a turning point. I think until then there was a sort of sense that things were pretty safe. That sense is, more or less, gone since January. And I think for a lot of French, although there’s been tremendous vocal opposition to these new surveillance laws, I think that for a lot of French there is a sense that they are going to have to adapt and that this is a kind of asymmetrical war and a kind of invisible enemy that might or might not be among them that they’re just going to have to live with and deal with in a way that they haven’t done until now.


Werman: Vivienne Walt with Time Magazine in Paris. Thank you very much.


Walt: You’re welcome.