Ordinary citizens are under perpetual closed-circuit television surveillance in stores, on street corners, and in most commercial and governmental office buildings. Now French President Emmanuel Macron is invading the daily lives of his people more intrusively than ever before. As part of a wide-ranging legislative initiative, the French parliament on July 5 passed a new internal spying provision. Police departments in France will now have the authority to surveil those suspected of criminal activity by turning on remotely the GPS locating function, camera, and microphones in smartphones, iPads, laptop computers, and similar personal electronic devices.
Using Smart Phones for Spying Draws Outrage
The French civilian surveillance law drew immediate criticism. A May 31 statement by the internet watchdog group La Quadrature du Net warned:
“[F]orensic investigators will be able to geolocate a car in real time from its computer system, listen to and record everything that is said around the microphone of a telephone even without a call in progress, or to activate the camera of a computer to film what is in the field of the lens, even if it is not turned on by its owner. Technically, the police will exploit the security flaws in these devices … to install software that allows them to take control of them and transform your tools, [and] those [of] your loved ones or different places [as] snitches.”
French police would be able to activate individuals’ phones because they think something illegal might be taking place. Defenders of the new surveillance law were quick to point out that an amendment limited “the use of remote spying to ‘when justified by the nature and seriousness of the crime’ and ‘for a strictly proportional duration,'” David Averre wrote in the Daily Mail. “And sensitive professions including doctors, journalists, lawyers, judges and MPs would not be legitimate targets.”
French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti reportedly referenced George Orwell’s 1984, a fictional account of a society under complete government scrutiny every minute of every day. Dupond-Moretti said his domestic intelligence gathering was far from that level of “totalitarianism,” as if that were the standard. But not to worry, any such invasion of personal smartphones or computers would require a judge’s approval, according to Averre.
Electronic Devices Used for Domestic Spying Has Happened
Little comfort for those Trump administration and election campaign officials caught up in the FBI’s rogue activities and abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the Russia hoax investigation. Despite the FBI being required to get “authorization to gather foreign intelligence by means of electronic surveillance,” as the Congressional Research Service reported to Congress, the agents in charge of the inquiry misrepresented their case to the FISA court. “The FBI knew the Trump-Russia collusion narrative was utter bunk even as it suggested otherwise to Congress,” the New York Post explained. So when a wayward agency or its employees are dedicated to deceiving the system, the letter of the law often fails. If you believe the French approach to law enforcement is unlikely to happen in the United States, think again. It has. The Hill published an opinion piece with a disturbing revelation:
“The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently disclosed that in 2021 the FBI conducted up to 3.4 million warrantless searches seeking Americans’ phone calls, emails, and text messages — using a law that, on paper, can only be used to spy on foreigners overseas.”
More disturbing is that the average American may not be concerned. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed that even after the Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic terrorist attack, Americans were less inclined to value personal freedom over security. “The revelations that the Obama administration secretly collected phone records and accessed the internet activity of millions of Americans have raised new questions about the public’s willingness to sacrifice civil liberties in the interests of national security,” Carroll Doherty wrote for Pew. Nonetheless, only 32% of those surveyed believed the government had gone too far in preserving America’s security, while 47% thought the feds had not gone far enough.
So, it’s not a stretch to believe that in order to ensure personal and institutional security, your fellow citizens might think the FBI and local police taking control of your electronic devices to eavesdrop is okay. Of course, there should be safeguards like a FISA court or a judge’s approval – but we now know those have not worked flawlessly in the past. Let France’s willingness to sacrifice personal liberty for security be a cautionary tale.
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