Lawmakers approve bill allowing French police to locate suspects by tapping their devices

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FILE - Protesters march during a protest rally in Paris, France, Thursday, March 23, 2023. French legislators are preparing to vote on a sweeping justice reform bill that would allow law enforcement agents to remotely tap into the camera, microphone, and location details from a suspect's phone and other connected devices. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

PARIS – French lawmakers on Tuesday adopted a sweeping justice reform bill that includes a provision to allow law enforcement agents to remotely tap into the cameras, microphones and location services of phones and other internet-connected devices of some suspected criminals.

The measure plainly stipulates that the procedure can be executed “without the knowledge or consent of its owner or possessor” but is limited to suspects involved in terrorism, organized crime and other illegal activities punishable by five or more years in prison.

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The language authorizing eavesdropping was contained in a broader reform bill aimed at “modernizing” penal procedures. Reflecting what polls indicate is a public demand for more law and order, the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, adopted two ambitious bills Tuesday that are aimed at bolstering the country's creaky judicial system.

The Senate, controlled by the right, adopted both bills in May.

“The goal of this law is clear: a faster, clearer, modern justice,” French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said when he presented the reform legislation in the spring.

The package includes a budget increase that would boost spending on the judicial system by nearly 11 billion euros by 2027. Before taking going into law, the bills must go to special commission to iron out any differences between the two chambers of Parliament.

Still, President Emmanuel Macron stands to gain from their passage amid a crisis that has gnawed at the fabric of French society.

The National Assembly passed the bill presented as the justice minister's “action plan” on a 388-111 vote, with 45 abstentions. Lawmakers on the left and digital rights activists criticized the eavesdropping provision as an invasion of privacy.

“This arrangement is scary,” Socialist lawmaker Cecile Untermaier said ahead of the vote, describing the type of surveillance authorized as “liberticide." Some Socialists planned to abstain for that reason.

The measure divided lawmakers on the right and left down the middle of the aisle.

"If we truly want to fight against organized crime, we need the means to do so and to give investigators the same means used by criminal groups," Pascale Bordes, a lawmaker from the far-right National Rally party, said.

The justice minister proposed the high-tech hunt for suspects as an alternative to long-standing police surveillance practices, such as wiretapping a suspect’s vehicle and house, which he deemed no longer viable and increasingly dangerous for investigators.

“The technique today is faulty,” Dupond-Moretti told National Assembly lawmakers this month. “Why would we deprive ourselves of new technologies?” When some parliamentarians expressed concerns over privacy rights, the minister replied, “By crying wolf, you are no longer credible.”

Besides limiting use of high-tech spying on suspects to crimes punishable by at least five years in prison, the legislation contains other controls. The goal of tapping a connected device must be locating someone in real time, and the investigating judge in a case must give the green light. In addition to activating location services, the measure would also allow investigators to activate a suspect's phone camera and microphone.

Critics claim the provision still would inevitably lead to abuses of power by French police, who in the past have faced allegations of misusing their authority, brutality and racism.

“We already see that there’s a lot of abuse in France today,” said Bastien Le Querrec, a lawyer with French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net. “In reality, who decides on the seriousness of an event in an investigation? It’s the police, the prosecutors, the investigating judge. Nothing in this bill will prevent abuse.”

In April, French lawmakers passed a law to allow the use of artificial intelligence and drones in mass video surveillance during the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris.

Terrorist attacks in France over the past decade and recent riots triggered by the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in a Paris suburb last month have made security a government focus as the country prepares to host athletes and visitors from around the world next year.

Violence also erupted this year during numerous demonstrations protesting Macron’s decision to raise the French retirement age from 62 to 64. But rights advocates fear the government is capitalizing on safety concerns that many people see as reasonable to pursue draconian measures.

“The use of surveillance technologies cannot be the systematic response to security issues,” Katia Roux, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International France, said in an interview. “The impact on human rights of these technologies must be taken into account before any normalization of their use. Under the guise of legitimate objectives that are linked to security, these technologies also promote violations of human rights, the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.”

Police surveillance via a suspect’s phone and other connected devices could last for up to six months at a time, according to the bill. Certain professionals, including journalists, lawyers, and members of the parliament, would be exempt.

“Sadly, yet again, France is a leader in a security strategy where we approach security by surveilling everybody," ” lawyer Le Querrec said. "It raises questions on the state of democracy and the state of French institutions.”

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Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.