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France Has a Powerful and Controversial New Surveillance Law

The law authorizes the government to tap phones and computers of terrorism suspects without much oversight.

Jiri Flogel / Shutterstock

As it plans its response to a series of six terrorist attacks Friday night that killed 129 and injured 352, the government of France will likely step up its efforts to keep tabs on the movements and communications of people within its borders.

As it happens, the attacks have occurred only a few months after legislators in that country passed a sweeping new surveillance law that gives the government broad powers to closely monitor the mobile phone and Internet communications of French citizens.

Passed by the French Parliament in May in response to the attacks on the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo, the law allows the government to monitor phone calls and emails of people suspected of connections to terrorism without the authorization of a judge.

But it goes further than that. The law requires Internet service providers to install “black boxes” that are designed to vacuum up and analyze metadata on the Web-browsing and general Internet use habits of millions of people using the Web and to make that data available to intelligence agencies.

In exceptional cases, the law allows the government to deploy what are called “ISMI catchers” to track all mobile phone communications in a given area. These catchers are basically designed to impersonate cell towers, but they intercept and record communications data from phones within its range, and can also track the movements of people carrying the phones.

Finally, the law allows government agents to break into the homes of suspected terrorists for the purpose of planting microphone bugs and surveillance cameras and installing keyloggers on their computers, devices that capture data on every keystroke and mouse click.

Critics of the law complain that there’s not much oversight and that the conditions under which the law’s powers can be triggered are vague. As The Verge noted in July, the government can authorize the surveillance for “major foreign policy interests” or to counter “organized delinquency.”

Surveillance operations are overseen by a nine-person committee led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls. But that committee has only an advisory role, and cannot overrule decisions by the prime minister.

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