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France Gives Law Enforcement Power To Remotely Activate, Listen In On People’s Devices

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In a concerning shift in law enforcement tactics, French lawmakers have given the green light to a measure that would empower the police to surreptitiously use mobile phones and other devices as their own surveillance tools.

The provision, sanctioned late on July 5, permits police to remotely activate the cameras, microphones, and GPS of suspects’ phones, laptops, cars, and other connected devices. This move comes as part of a broader justice reform bill.

The measure specifically targets individuals suspected of involvement in crimes, stipulating that only those implicated in crimes punishable by a minimum of five years in prison can be surveilled in this manner.

The remote activation of devices is not only aimed at geolocation but can also be employed to capture audio and visual information pertaining to suspects allegedly engaged in terrorism, delinquency, or organized crime.

However, the provision did not sail through unopposed.

Digital rights organization La Quadrature du Net, in a statement issued in May, vehemently voiced its trepidation regarding possible infringement on fundamental liberties such as “right to security, right to a private life and to private correspondence” and the freedom of movement. The organization characterized this legislative proposal as symptomatic of a descent into oppressive security measures.

In an effort to assuage concerns, an amendment was introduced during the debate by members of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, which imposes restrictions on the utilization of this covert surveillance. The amendment mandates that the spying can only be justified based on the gravity of the crime, and must be in proportion to the nature of the alleged criminal activity.

Furthermore, a judicial nod is compulsory for any application of this provision, and there is a cap on the total duration of such surveillance, which cannot exceed six months. Additionally, certain professions deemed sensitive, such as doctors, journalists, lawyers, judges, and members of parliament, are exempt from being targeted.

In defense of the provision, Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti has played down fears of widespread misuse, asserting that it would be applied in a very limited number of instances – merely “dozens of cases a year.”

He sought to further quell anxieties by distancing the measure from dystopian surveillance, stating, “We’re far away from the totalitarianism of 1984,” referencing George Orwell’s renowned novel. He emphatically stated that this law would be a life-saving tool, asserting, “People’s lives will be saved” by the implementation of this law.

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