French authorities requested 6,145 phone and data taps in 2012

An oversight committee also vetted over 200,000 requests for communications data

French government and police officials requested 6,145 phone and data taps in 2012, fewer than in 2011, according to figures released by the French National Commission for the Control of Security Interceptions (CNCIS) earlier this week.

The CNCIS acts as a check on wiretap authorizations by the Prime Minister's office, which receives requests for connection data and for targeted interception of voice and data communications from law enforcement or security services.

It rejected 50 of the 6,145 interceptions requested in 2012, having rejected 55 of the 6,396 requests the previous year. It also ordered the termination of 52 ongoing interceptions.

Preventing crime and organized crime was given as the reason for 52 percent of the requests, with national security accounting for 24 percent and preventing terrorism 23 percent.

France had a population of 65.3 million at the end of 2012, with 35.3 million fixed lines (including 24 million broadband Internet connections) and 70.5 million active mobile subscriptions, making for one authorization per 10,700 inhabitants, or one authorization for every 17,400 phone lines.

In comparison, the U.S. ended 2012 with a population almost five times higher, at around 315.1 million according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, yet U.S. courts authorized just 3,395 wiretaps that year. Of those, 87 percent were for drug investigations, just over 3 percent for murder investigations, and under 3 percent for racketeering investigations.

On top of those, a further 1,789 applications for authority to conduct electronic surveillance were approved by the Foreign Intelligence Service Court, with no rejections. Little is known about the decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court beyond its annual report to the U.S. Senate.

Finally, the FBI sent 15,229 National Security Letters requesting information concerning 6,223 different U.S. persons in 2012, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Taking the three categories together, that amounts to one interception request for every 15,400 or so U.S. inhabitants.

The figures above do not include the mass interception of communications or gathering of communications data now known to have been performed by the U.S. National Security Agency, nor the mass interceptions of communications that French newspaper Le Monde alleged in July had been by the French Directorate General of External Security.

In France, the CNCIS also oversees targeted requests for data about calls, including the numbers called, their time and their duration. It can also authorize collection of information about data sessions, including the IP addresses attributed to the connection, and the volume of data transmitted or received. In 2012 it vetted 190,431 requests for identification of the person associated with a communication, and 6,626 requests for more detailed information about communications traffic.

It also vets requests for call data made under an anti-terrorism law. It saw 29,322 such requests in 2012, significantly down for the second year in a row, although the trend is once again upward in 2013, it said.

The CNCIS will see its role enlarged under a new law giving government officials greater powers to intercept data communications and to obtain location data in real time. The controversial law, a rider on a military appropriations bill, was passed in mid-December and immediately drew criticism from French civil rights groups and technology industry bodies.

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