French parliament approves surveillance rules in counterterror move

French lawmakers have approved a controversial law to let intelligence services use spying devices more easily, with the aim of preventing Islamist attacks.

The bill, opposed by civil rights groups, some leftists and some members of President Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialists, waives the need for judicial warrants to use phone taps, hidden microphones, cameras and other communication readers.

The law on intelligence-gathering was adopted by 438 votes to 86, despite vocal opposition from critics who fear it will lead to a dangerous extension of mass surveillance. It was drafted in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris in January, in which 17 people died.

Under the new law, security officials circumvent a judge’s approval and can order surveillance after advice by a newly created supervisory body, the National Commission for Control of Intelligence Techniques (CNCTR), specifically dedicated to this.

The French government said the law is needed to take account of changes in communications technology and argued it wants to bring modern surveillance techniques within the law rather outside any regulation.

Prime Minister Manuel Vallas has defended the bill as essential to counter-terrorism activities and denied it was the French counterpart of the US Patriot Act passed in the wake of September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Nor was it similar, he said, to the mass metadata collection exposed by former US National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden, which sparked an international outcry.

“This bill, which provides a framework to the work of intelligence services, gives them more powers to be more efficient in the fight against terrorism and serious crime,” he told reporters.

However, the main concern is French intelligence agencies will be able to collect troves of metadata online, with focus on the time and place of communication rather than content. Critics said this amounts to an intrusion of privacy.

One online advocacy group, La Quadrature du Net, wrote: “Representatives of the French people have given the Prime Minister the power to undertake massive and limitless surveillance of the population.

“By doing so, they're ensuring that the power of the state and the basis of our democratic system are getting ever more distant from one another.”

The upper house of parliament will vote on the bill in June.

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