French Senate gives green light to surveillance through cameras and microphones

In France, the Senate just approved a controversial provision to a justice bill that would allow law enforcement to secretly activate cameras and microphones on a suspect’s devices.

This type of surveillance would be activated without notifying the owner of the device. The same provision would also allow agencies easier access to geolocation data to track suspected criminals.

Even though officials say they would only use the new update to the so-called “Keeper of the Seals” justice bill to capture sound and images of suspects of certain crimes such as delinquency, organized crime, and terrorism, the critics say this would still be disproportionate.

And it’s not only politicians – widespread concern has engulfed civil rights advocates and organizations, too. For instance, the Observatory of Digital Freedoms has denounced such a “security overkill” – it says any subject would risk being turned into a potential snitch.

La Quadrature du Net, another French advocacy group promoting digital rights and freedoms, has also 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.

Lawyers are also unhappy. The Paris Bar, representing almost 30 000 lawyers, said in a statement that it “deplored” the fact that the initiators of the provision – the government – didn’t consult them.

“This new possibility of remotely activating any electronic device constitutes a particularly serious breach of respect for privacy which cannot be justified by the protection of the public order,” said the Paris Bar.

“In addition, the project does not prohibit listening to conversations between the lawyer and her client in the lawyer’s office – even if it is prohibited. This is an inadmissible breach of professional secrecy and the rights of defense.”

Critics are urging French parliamentarians to dismiss the controversial provisions. And it’s not too late – the update to the bill must still be approved in the National Assembly, the more powerful lower house of the Parliament.

Eric Dupond-Moretti, the justice minister, argues that all the necessary safeguards are in place – for example, every surveillance operation would have to be approved by a judge.

Since 2015, when terrorist attacks rocked France, the country has increased its surveillance powers, and the “Keeper of the Seal” bill has been likened to the infamous US Patriot Act.

Activating cameras and microphones on a suspect’s device might not be allowed for now. But the French law allows the government to monitor phone calls and emails of terrorism suspects without obtaining a warrant. Paris is now planning to go one step further.