Big Brother or vital protection? French MPs set to OK spy bill

Fabrice Randoux

Paris (AFP) - Four months after jihadist attacks in Paris killed 17 people, French MPs are set to approve a controversial bill giving spies sweeping new surveillance powers deemed "heavily intrusive" by critics.

The draft law, which is expected to sail through a vote in the lower house National Assembly on Tuesday, has sparked a firestorm of protest from rights groups, which claim it infringes on privacy.

They will be protesting near parliament on Monday under the banner "24 hours before 1984" in reference to George Orwell's dystopian novel about life under an all-knowing dictatorship.

The text enjoys support from both main parties and is almost certain to be adopted when lawmakers vote on May 5, despite opposition from the far-left and greens.

- Not a 'Patriot Act' -

The new law will allow authorities to spy on the digital and mobile communications of anyone linked to a "terrorist" enquiry without prior authorisation from a judge, and forces internet service providers and phone companies to give up data upon request.

Intelligence services will have the right to place cameras and recording devices in private dwellings and install "keylogger" devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.

The authorities will be able to keep recordings for a month, and metadata for five years.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has fiercely defended the bill, saying that to compare it to the mass surveillance "Patriot Act" introduced in the United States after the 9/11 attacks was a "lie".

He has pointed out that the previous law on wiretapping dates back to 1991, "when there were no mobile phones or Internet," which makes the new bill crucial in the face of extremist threats.

The January 7-9 attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine, a policewoman and a Jewish supermarket sent shockwaves around the world, and prompted several reforms in France including the controversial bill.

And just as MPs debated the draft law last month, authorities announced that an Algerian-born jihadist sympathiser was arrested in connection with a thwarted attack on a church.

- 'Mass surveillance' -

Perhaps the most controversial of the bill's proposals are so-called "black boxes" -- or complex algorithms -- that Internet providers will be forced to install to flag-up a succession of suspect behaviours online such as what keywords someone types, what sites they consult and who they contact and when.

A poll published last month showed that nearly two-thirds of French people were in favour of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism.

Only 32 percent of those surveyed in the CSA poll for the Atlantico news website said they were opposed to freedoms being reduced, although this proportion rose significantly among young people.

However, the national digital council, an independent advisory body, has come out against the proposed legislation.

The group said it was akin to "mass surveillance" which has "been shown to be extremely inefficient in the United States."

It also said it was "unsuited to the challenges of countering terrorist recruitment" and "does not provide sufficient guarantees in terms of freedoms."

After it is voted by the lower house National Assembly, the bill will move to the upper house Senate for further debate.