Familiar Swing to Security Over Privacy After Attacks in France


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Soldiers were deployed in Paris in January after the terrorist attacks that shook the nation and added impetus to efforts to increase intelligence-gathering.

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Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

PARIS — For two years after the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, Europe was awash in talk about American excesses in mass surveillance, objecting to how the National Security Agency swept up emails and phone conversations — even of political leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — in an American electronic net that seemed to envelop the Continent.

But the past few months have helped clarify what much of Europe really objected to: the American involvement in that surveillance, not the net itself. Worried about Islamic extremists in its midst, Britain passed even more sweeping surveillance laws last summer. And in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris in January, the French have begun what has become almost a rite of passage for Western nations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, voting through the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday vastly expanded government powers to protect, and spy on, its own citizens.

Even Ms. Merkel, who lectured President Obama in 2013 about her family’s life under the East German Stasi, found herself reminding reporters the other day that Germany often has to spy to protect its citizens — while dancing around the question of how much it may have cooperated with the N.S.A. in looking at Airbus Industries.

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Reaction to French Surveillance Bill

Members of the French conservative party reacted after parliament voted on Tuesday to adopt new surveillance rules.


By Reuters on Publish Date May 6, 2015.


Photo by Ian Langsdon/European Pressphoto Agency.

In Europe, the impulse for government protection, even at the expense of civil liberties, is hardly new. Britain’s surveillance cameras on every major city block are well known. France has conducted similarly intensive surveillance for years, but without explicit legal authorization. “The French government is saying, in essence, ‘We do it anyway, so we might as well be able to use it for evidence in court,’ ” said Frédérick Douzet, a cybersecurity expert and professor at the University of Paris 8.

However, some of the measures authorized in the pending legislation would be new — at least as far as anyone knows — including the use of new technology to conduct analysis of bulk metadata, experts said.

The reality, however, is that it is unlikely that any of the proposed measures would have prevented the January attacks at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, some experts in Paris said. And while counterterrorism was the justification as the National Assembly greatly enhanced the spying powers of the nation’s intelligence services, Ms. Douzet and others point out that the law allows broad surveillance in other areas as well.

But there was a near absence of public attention and debate around the measures — or around whether France needs the kinds of checks and balances on surveillance that the United States has imposed. Indeed, the news barely made the front pages of newspapers here on Wednesday, even though in the run-up to the vote, some news outlets had extensively highlighted the potential abuses of the far-reaching legislation.

“This is the tradition of a country that used to see itself as a great power — so we do whatever it takes,” said Dominique Moïsi, the co-founder of the French Institute for International Relations and a political scientist.

At the same time, Congress is inching in the other direction. By the end of June, the American government may get out of the business of bulk collection of telephone metadata, though under legislation and a proposal by President Obama, that collection would simply move to telecommunications companies.

In fact, after more than a decade of massive government surveillance, the extent of which was not fully known until the leaks from Mr. Snowden, the N.S.A. now finds itself having to justify its programs to the White House and the American people.

But the outrage in Europe about the Snowden disclosures was largely centered on the intrusion of the American surveillance system onto European soil — sometimes with the help, witting or unwitting, of American companies. “The common vocabulary among the Europeans is that Europe is privacy friendly, and the United States tolerates a Stasi-like N.S.A. and vicious data collectors like Google and Facebook,” said Benjamin Wittes, the co-author of “The Future of Violence.” “It’s nonsense. They object to the American part.”

The exception may be Germany, where the current uproar is about what the B.N.D., Germany’s intelligence service, may have done in partnership with the United States. But when it comes to social media, European sensibilities are beginning to change. Even those countries that prize discretion are facing the reality that there is a new era of global communication that compromises privacy, and that little on the Internet can be kept secret. That, perhaps, is making it easier for citizens to accept government snooping.

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What Would the Law Allow?

In France, opposition to the bill gained little traction even though critics argued that the proposed legislation would allow French intelligence services to collect and monitor bulk communications, read text messages and email, and tap cellphones with little judicial oversight. The opponents included many Internet companies, civil liberties supporters and some left-leaning members of the French Parliament, as well as some judges and lawyers.

But they won little political support: Western Europe lacks the strand of antigovernment sentiment seen in libertarians or the Tea Party in the United States. And while there is some legislative branch oversight, it rarely delves deeply into government proposals and programs.

So just as the Sept. 11 attacks led President George W. Bush and Congress to grant far-reaching powers to American intelligence agencies, deadly attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe and fear about the thousands of extremists in Syria and Iraq with European passports are allowing intelligence and security services to obtain powers that previously eluded them.

France, with the largest Muslim population in Europe, has seen more of its citizens go to fight in the Middle East than any other European country. Similarly, the hundreds of British citizens who went to Syria in recent years prompted the government last summer to approve surveillance measures forcing telecommunication companies to retain data for a year. (In the United States, the norm is even longer.)

Now, human rights and civil liberties advocates say their worry is not only how France might use the new law, but also how other countries will seize on the precedent.

“My fear is that France is setting an example here, and it encourages a race for the bottom on a global level,” said Cynthia Wong, a lawyer and senior Internet researcher for Human Rights Watch. “If France does it, why wouldn’t every other government do the same thing?”

Even so, some analysts and opponents of the new measures said they would not necessarily have prevented Chérif and Saïd Kouachi from massacring 12 people at Charlie Hebdo. Nor would the added measures probably have headed off Amedy Coulibaly from taking hostages days later at a kosher grocery store, killing four of them as well as a police officer, they said.

“The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were already targeted by the intelligence services,” said Pierre-Olivier Sur, the head of the Paris bar association, who opposes the new measures.

The authorities, others note, already have more information and suspects than they can track with current resources and funding, neither of which are augmented by the proposed legislation.

“The law would not have added anything,” Mr. Sur said.



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