French surveillance law is constitutional, highest court says

The French Patriot Act has passed its last legislative hurdle

A surveillance law rushed through the French parliament in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January is constitutional, the country's highest court ruled late Thursday. The decision gives law enforcers and intelligence agencies the power to gather communications metadata -- who is communicating with whom, where, and when -- in real time, with few restrictions.

As the law on surveillance progressed through parliament, the government declared it "urgent", meaning elected representatives in the Senate and National Assembly had only one opportunity to amend it instead of the usual two. They waved it through anyway. Some parliamentarians challenged parts of the law on constitutional grounds, calling on the Constitutional Council to give its verdict.

That arrived late Thursday, with the council declaring the law constitutional on all but a few points.

Outside parliament, the law has drawn a motley collection of opponents: civil liberties groups, Internet service providers, and even an association of motorcyclists, all concerned about the potential for government monitoring of lobby groups.

France's Pirate Party, which pushes for the respect of human rights online as well as offline, said the council's decision severely limited French citizens' right to privacy.

"Far from reinforcing security, validating this law proves that our country is turning its back on its principles in the face of threats and violence. It is turning into a police state, a paranoid society," the party's spokesman Thomas Watanabe-Vermorel said via email.

The only significant point struck out by the council was a measure allowing surveillance in "operationally urgent" circumstances without prior authorization from the Prime Minister or a delegated official. Other measures allowing authorities to gather communications metadata in real time, direct from service providers' networks, remained in force.

The other measures judged unconstitutional included one considered to be the domain of the annual budget law, and one setting out the conditions under which authorities could monitor the activity of French citizens outside the country's borders. Online rights lobby group La Quadrature du Net predicted that the latter change would simply strengthen the existing unauthorized practices of the intelligence agencies by eliminating all forms of oversight.

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

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