French lawmakers propose warrantless access to live user data from ISPs and hosting sites

A new bill would grant the military, police and even tax officials warrantless access to user data from ISPs and online services

A wide variety of government officials could gain access to live data concerning users of ISPs and online services including content-hosting sites, without the approval of a judge, under a draft law approved by members of the French National Assembly on Friday.

The measure, a rider on the 2014-2019 defense appropriation bill, would require ISPs and content hosting companies to provide government officials with access to details of their users' activity without judicial oversight. Law enforcement officials can already ask a judge for an order to access such data.

If the bill becomes law, it will no longer be necessary to go via the courts to obtain such access, and the number of government officials who could access the data would be much broader, potentially including those responsible for collecting taxes. Requests for access to such data could be approved by an appointee of the Prime Minister for periods of up to 30 days, renewable on demand. The requests could be made by designated officials of the Ministries of Defense, the Interior or Finance, and would be reviewed after the fact by a committee responsible for auditing wiretapping orders. The process by which the committee might revoke approval is slow, however.

The bill immediately attracted criticism from Renaissance Numérique, a think tank with board members including Microsoft France's director of public and legal affairs, Marc Mossé, and Google France's institutional relations manager, Elisabeth Bargès.

The think tank deplored the lack of consultation on the measures included in Article 13 of the bill, it said Friday in a statement published on its website.

This article's broadening of the administration's ability to collect Internet users' browsing history in real time, without approval by a judge, is antidemocratic, the statement said.

Further weakening the controls on access to Internet users' personal data is an infringement on individual freedom. Saving time is not a sufficient reason for trampling the fundamentals of our democracy, the think tank said in the statement.

The defense appropriation bill was introduced by the French Senate in August, and amended by the National Assembly in a series of votes on Friday. Its purpose is to define how the government guarantees the protection of French territory and citizens from threats including state aggression, terrorist attacks, cyberattacks, threats to the country's scientific or technical power, organized crime, and natural disasters, and to budget for that.

The bill projects a shift from physical threats to cyberthreats, and proposes to move some resources from traditional military hardware to electronic surveillance and countermeasures. It provides for the Ministry of Defense to recruit 350 cyberwarfare staff in addition to the 500 already working for the French National Agency for Information Systems Security (ANSSI), create a centralized information system for the armed forces, and develop new satellites for signals interception by 2019. Over the same period, though, the bill would do away with 54 of the French army's 254 Leclerc heavy tanks, a thousand other armored vehicles and a quarter of its attack helicopters. It defines the role of the new cyberwarfare staff as identifying the origin of attacks, evaluating the defensive capacities of potential adversaries and, if necessary, responding.

It's early days yet for Article 13, as the bill must return to the Senate for further debate, and obtain presidential approval, before it can become law.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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