France: New surveillance law a major blow to human rights

The millions of fragments of information that we divulge online can be used to build an accurate picture of us. Credit: Amnesty International



24 July 2015

Extensive powers allowing French authorities to monitor people online and offline will come into force in a matter of days after the country’s highest constitutional authority endorsed all but three sections of a new surveillance law, Amnesty International said today.

The French government rushed the Intelligence Bill through parliament in the wake of the Paris attacks earlier this year, turning a deaf ear to strong opposition from rights groups, judges, tech companies, trade unions, lawyers and parliamentarians, as well as criticism from international human rights bodies.

“Last night’s decision clears the last hurdle for a law that will deal a major blow to human rights in France. The surveillance measures authorised by this law are wildly out of proportion. Large swathes of France’s population could soon find themselves under surveillance on obscure grounds and without prior judicial approval,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.

“The US and UK security agencies’ mass surveillance was denounced globally, yet French authorities appear to want to mimic their American and British counterparts in allowing the authorities to intercept and access people’s communications at will.”

The decision comes only two days after the UN Human Rights Committee, tasked with reviewing France’s compliance with its treaty obligations, criticised the law giving the French government “excessively large surveillance powers”. Contrary to what the UN argued, the Constitutional Council did not strike down the fact that the Prime Minister, not a judge, can authorise surveillance, nor did it rule against the lawfulness of the goals for which surveillance is allowed as listed in the law.

The key problems with the law as it stands include:

  • It allows the Prime Minister to authorise intrusive surveillance measures for broad and undefined goals such as “major foreign policy interests”, protecting of France’s “economic, industrial and scientific interests” and prevention of “collective violence” and “organised delinquency”.
  • It allows the use of mass surveillance tools that capture mobile phone calls and black boxes (for the purposes of counterterrorism) in internet service providers that collect and analyse the personal data of millions of internet users.
  • Lack of independent oversight: instead of getting a judge’s approval, the Prime Minister would only need to seek the views of a new body, the “National Committee of Intelligence Techniques Control”, without any need to abide by them.
  • It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for people to find out whether they are being unlawfully spied on, or for whistle-blowers to expose abuse of surveillance powers.

The Constitutional Council struck down one of the most excessive sections of the law, dealing with surveillance of international communications that would have allowed the interception of communications “sent or received” abroad. Amnesty International had warned that this could have included virtually all internet communications. It also struck down a section that would have allowed intelligence agencies, to carry out surveillance without any authorisation, even from the prime minister in case of “urgent threats”.

“This law is in flagrant violation of the international human rights to privacy and free speech. Someone investigating the actions of the French government or French companies or even organising a protest, could be subjected to extremely intrusive forms of surveillance. Mass surveillance tools, including black boxes, would put the internet communications of the entire population and beyond within reach of the French authorities,” said Geneviève Garrigos, head of Amnesty International France.


French rights groups, including Amnesty International France, said the Intelligence Bill was unconstitutional in a submission to the Constitutional Council on 10 July.

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