So it turns out the French are up to almost the same things as their friends in the UK’s GCHQ and the US’s NSA: the French government has its own top-secret cyber-snooping operation going, according to Le Monde. VM‘s French is a little rusty, so forgive us any clumsy wording in the following:
The intelligence services are looking at the metadata—not the content of the messages, but their container. The goal is to figure out who is talking to whom, to link targets, to identify ‘cells’. DGSE [the French intelligence service] thus collects the phone records of millions of subscribers, their email, SMS, fax… as well as all Internet activity, which passes through Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo… The program is valuable for fighting against terrorism. But it allows you to spy on anyone, anytime.
Count VM among the less-than-shocked crowd at the news. Collecting the best possible signals intelligence has just been what states do since the rise of telecommunications. Things were already headed this way in the late 1990’s, and 9/11 just accelerated the trend.We share some of the concerns that civil libertarians bring up in light of these revelations, but at the same time we recognize that the world is much more complicated than critics like Snowden and his ilk will admit. Terrorism is a very real threat, and the Internet is turning out to be by necessity a much less private place than most of us may have assumed.Much as in the UK and the US, the strict legality of the program is not exactly clear—a French spy called it ‘a-legal’ under French law to Le Monde. A little sunlight shed on these kinds of ambitious government initiatives can be healthy for a democracy, if only to ensure that proper mechanisms are in place to prevent rampant abuse. But finding the best possible balance between security and privacy has to be the goal. One area to work on would be to develop appropriate restrictions on how data can be used, with clear penalties for violating them.It’s complicated, and blind trust in our leaders is always a mistake. Negotiating the tradeoff between liberty and security has been a major American concern since 1776; we are still in that business today.[Big Brother photo courtesy of Shutterstock.]