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Shocker: The French Have a Cyber-Snooping Program Too


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 MondeVM‘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 GoogleFacebookMicrosoftApple, 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.]

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  • Jim__L

    It’s actually possible to transmit messages with the message headers (meta-data) in the clear, while the actual message content is encrypted.

    So you know who’s whispering to whom, but you have to glean from context what they’re whispering about.

    Does that sound like a workable compromise, here? Trust that intelligence agencies aren’t looking at content, but verify that they can’t actually decode it.

    • Damir Marusic

      There’s a lot of work to be done before that kind of encryption is easy to use and is pervasive in the Internet’s structure for a solution like this to be truly workable.

      Furthermore, it’s best to think of encryption in terms of an arms race rather than as something that you apply or don’t.

      • Jim__L

        Yes, there are a whole lot more details to be discussed to implement this broad strategy. I’m trying to keep at least some of my posts short here… 😉

  • wigwag

    Professor Mead is absolutely right, but with that said, indicting Snowden under the Espionage Act is way over the top. The debate that Prodessor Mead acknowledges is important wouldn’t be occurring in the United States, France or anywhere else but for Snowden’s actions.

    As we celebrate the Fourth of July it pays to contemplate what our founders would have thought of Snowden. John Adams, tge father of the Alien and Sedition Acts might have supported throwing the book at him. I suspect that others including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin might have been willing to cut the confused young man a little slack.

    • jeburke

      Nonsense. One of the first acts of the Continental Congress in 1775 was to create a Secret Committee of Correspondence, America’s first intelligence agency, on which Franklin served. A year later, Adams and Jefferson served together on the Committee on Spying which, among other things, wrote the nation’s first espionage act, decreeing the death penalty for spying. Beginning with his assumption of command of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington committed a lot of resources to intelligence with Congress’s support. One program involved large-scale interception of mail which was, not incidentally, opened and read by another secret committee of Congress on which Franklin served. And members of Congress decreed for themselves and officers of the government an oath of secrecy very much like the one Snowden took but spurned.

      Also, it should be noted that nothing in the Alien and Sedition acts had anything to do with intelligence gathering or supposed “spying on Americans” so that’s a red herring.

      • Kavanna

        The committees of correspondence were not intelligence services. The US didn’t have one until the Civil War, and even then it, it was primitive by modern standards.

  • Corlyss

    Everyone with the technical skills and toys to do it does it. The pros know this. The pols know this. The only reason it’s a big whoop now is because some choose to demagogue the issue as if they didn’t know what they know.

  • Kavanna

    So the French policy isn’t that different from the US. “Metadata” means all the information about the message, not the message itself — the envelope, not the letter. That much is allowed under US law, without a warrant.

    However, the standing laws and precedents covering these policies don’t allow indiscriminate collection of even metadata. The US policy certainly violates at least the spirit of the relevant laws (FISA, Patriot Act, etc.).

    I don’t know about the French laws. But I bet that the protection for citizens and the use of wiretapping warrants is similar to the US case.

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