In the aftermath of last week’s horrific massacre at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, French officials are pushing to strengthen the country’s domestic surveillance capabilities in hopes of thwarting future terror attacks.
Some officials are going as far as calling for a French version of the controversial American Patriot Act, which gives the U.S. government broad power to search private records and detain suspects in the name of fighting terror. That has civil liberties advocates sounding the alarm: They fear that in these tense days following the Paris attacks, the balancing act between freedom and security may tip dangerously toward the latter.
“France already has quite extensive powers. The fact that they are saying they need more power raises concerns,” said Izza Leghtas, a Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There really needs to be proper consideration and debate on provisions that could carry very significant consequences. We don’t want to see anything rushed through.”
On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivered a speech to the French National Assembly in which he declared new security proposals were on the way. Valls also said he wants help from technology firms to monitor the internet and social media and said he wanted tighter surveillance of convicted extremists. Valls did note that the country shouldn’t “deviate from the principles of law and values” but added, “We must respond to this exceptional situation with exceptional measures.”
His speech received several standing ovations.
French politician Valérie Pécresse is pressing for a version of the Patriot Act, which passed overwhelmingly under George W. Bush following the 9/11 terror attacks. Critics have spent years condemning the Patriot Act, which allowed the government to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records without a court order, arguing it tramples on civil liberties and allows the government so spy on innocent people. In 2011, Obama signed a four-year extension allowing the government to conduct roving wiretaps in an effort to thwart terrorists.
The French response to the Charlie Hedbo attacks has already been muscular. Authorities on Wednesday announced that at least 54 people have been arrested since the attack for hate speech or condoning terrorism, including the well-known—and very controversial—comedian, Dieudonne, who took to Facebook suggesting he sympathized with one of the Paris gunmen.And indeed, even without a single piece of new legislation, France’s national security and surveillance state already has very robust powers. In 2013, the legislature passed a law that essentially allows officials to see what internet users are doing in real time and without prior legal approval. A law passed last year extended power to an anti-terrorist prosecutor to crack down on hate speech.
“There’s no need for new repressive laws now,” said Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer at the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris. “Let’s see how the existing ones work and put it into application.” Becarte added that even the existing laws are dangerous in terms of protecting civil liberties. “This hides the real debate about the multiple causes of what happened,” she added – pointing to social causes, radicalization in prisons, and positions western countries take in Middle East conflicts.
France isn’t the only country seeking greater surveillance measures in light of the deadly attacks. British Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp could be blocked if the country’s intelligence services can’t access them. Cameron was in Washington on Friday and wants to convince President Obama to allow government access to encrypted messages via Google and Facebook.
Obama at a Friday news conference said such dialogue was underway with big American tech companies. The discussions, the president said are “designed to make sure that all of us feel confident that if there is an actual threat out there our law enforcement and our intelligence officers can identify that threat and track that threat, but at the same time our governments are not fishing around into whatever texts you may be sending on your smart phone.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also urged better online surveillance. The justice and interior ministers of a dozen European countries –including France, Britain, German, Sweden and Poland—issued a statement saying it was “essential” that major Internet providers work with governments to monitor and potentially remove content “that aims to incite hatred and terror.”
That last part strikes some critics as ironic, since European leaders were quick to express shock and disgust after former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed National Security Agency secrets on surveillance, including the U.S. spying on several world leaders and foreign governments—including the French Foreign Ministry and Merkel’s cell phone.
“I hope that France will be cautious with reactive measures and will not pander to decisions that it had criticized in the past,” said Benoît Thieulin chairman of the French Digital Council, an independent advisory commission to the government, adding he did not think France would adopt a French Patriot Act.
Thieulin noted the Paris gunmen “did not became violent on the Internet. Radicalization has multiple causes, and prison is often one of them.”
He added, “That’s why we should focus on how public authorities, civil society and social networks can better cooperate to build proactive communications strategies in the Internet. Facebook and Twitter must spread positive contents to counter hate speech and violence.” Thieulin pointed to the “Je suis Charlie” movement – a message is support of the French satirical newspaper that was attacked – as proof.
Part of the solution, said Muriel Rouyer, a French citizen and adjunct professor at Harvard Kennedy School who specializes in French politics and judicial democracy, not only involves sticking to the existing rule of law but also citizens and civil society sending strong messages to the government to help ensure accountability.
“Indeed there is a slippery slope,” said Rouyer. “People understand that security is key to democracy. But the reverse is also true: Democracy and respect of rights fuel security.”