France’s NSA-Like Electronic Surveillance Program

Yesterday, the major French newspaper Le Monde published an article revealing that the French government runs a massive electronic surveillance program similar to the US NSA program that has caused massive international controversy. Here is a summary of the revelations in English, published by the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian. For French-speaking readers, the original Le Monde article, can be found here. Here is the opening paragraph:

Si les révélations sur le programme d’espionnage américain Prism ont provoqué un concert d’indignation en Europe, la France, elle, n’a que faiblement protesté. Pour deux excellentes raisons : Paris était déjà au courant. Et fait la même chose.

I translate this roughly as follows: “Although the revelation of the American Prism espionage program provoked indignation in Europe, France mounted only feeble protests. For two excellent reasons: Paris was already aware of the program. And it was doing the same thing itself.” The article goes on to claim that the French government surveillance program encompasses virtually all telephone and internet communications within France, and between that country and the outside world. “All of our communications are spied upon,” it concludes. Meanwhile, the French government claims that Le Monde’s account is inaccurate and that the program is subject to various legal restraints.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Le Monde’s description of the French program is that access to the data is not limited to agencies responsible for intelligence and counterterrorism. Many other government agencies also apparently use the data whenever they see fit. This illustrates the slippery slope problems inherent in such large-scale spying. While the original justification may be the need to prevent massive terrorist attacks, over time there is a strong temptation to use it for other purposes as well. If we can use this kind of surveillance to catch terrorists, why not drug traffickers, tax evaders, or people who may have violated any of a myriad of other federal laws? Given the vast scope of federal law today, nearly all of us are technically criminals, and therefore maybe all of us need to be subject to constant electronic surveillance. Obviously, however, the wider the range of purposes for which such surveillance can be used, the greater the infringement on privacy and the risk of abuse.

Perhaps the sort of slippage that seems to have occurred in France would not happen in this country. But it would be dangerously short-sighted to ignore the risk.

UPDATE: I posted the above without noticing that co-blogger Orin Kerr put up a brief post about the French program earlier today. Nonetheless, I am leaving this post up because it addresses some issues that Orin’s did not cover, and because Orin did not include a link to the original Le Monde article. For readers who don’t know French, the English-language New York Times account linked by Orin is more thorough than the Guardian article I linked to above.