French lawmakers pass watered-down police phone spying bill

France’s National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, has passed a new bill allowing police to remotely activate cameras on citizens’ phones. However, the scope of the law is not as wide as previously feared.

The spying provision is part of a wider justice reform bill and will enable French police to remotely activate the camera, microphone, and GPS of suspects’ phones, laptops, and other connected devices.

The idea passed in the National Assembly with 80 votes in favor and 24 against, even though the provision was attacked by both left and right as an authoritarian snoopers’ charter.

The measure would allow the geolocation of suspects in crimes punishable by at least five years of jail. Devices could also be remotely activated to record sound and images of people suspected of terror offenses, as well as delinquency and organized crime.

Critics say this is disproportionate. For instance, La Quadrature du Net, an advocacy group promoting digital rights and freedoms, has expressed concern about the threat to privacy. According to the organization, investigators could, in theory, be allowed to remotely activate all connected devices, such as televisions or baby monitors.

“If this text were definitively adopted, it would dangerously increase the possibilities of police intrusion by transforming all our IT tools into potential spies,” the group warned in a press release in May.

Lawyers were also unhappy. The Paris Bar, representing almost 30,000 lawyers, has previously said that it was concerned about the fact that the bill didn’t prohibit listening to confidential conversations between a lawyer and client.

It seems that lawmakers have heard these concerns. During a debate on Wednesday, centrist MPs managed to insert an important amendment to the provision. Now, police will not be able to legitimately target members of sensitive professions – doctors, journalists, lawyers, judges, and the MPs themselves.

What’s more, the amendment will limit the use of remote spying to “when justified by the nature and seriousness of the crime” and “for a strictly proportional duration.” As previously planned, any use of such powers will have to be approved by a judge, and suspects will not be surveilled for longer than six months.

"We're far away from the totalitarianism of 1984," George Orwell's novel about a society under total surveillance, Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said.

"People's lives will be saved" by the law, he added. The minister insists the new provision would only affect a few dozen cases per year.

The passing of the bill comes as France is still engulfed in violent protests over the death of Nahel Merzouk, a teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer. The officer has since been charged with voluntary homicide.

Paris has recently proposed severe penalties on social media platforms such as Twitter and TikTok for what it says amounts to incitement to riot online.

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