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France summons US ambassador to answer allegations of widespread NSA surveillance

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Agency reportedly recorded millions of French phone calls over 30-day period last year

french flag (flickr)
french flag (flickr)

The US National Security Agency (NSA) has been intercepting French telephone calls "on a massive scale", according to a report published Monday in Le Monde. The report was co-authored by American journalist Glenn Greenwald, and is based on classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. According to Le Monde, the NSA recorded millions of telephone calls placed by French citizens over a 30-day period last year, including some placed by people with no connections to terrorist organizations.

The NSA declined to comment on today's revelations, though French officials are already taking action. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Monday that he has summoned the US ambassador to discuss Le Monde's report.

"This type of practice between partners, which invades private life, is totally unacceptable," Fabius told reporters in Luxembourg. "We must assure, very rapidly, that they are no longer practiced."

French minister says surveillance is "totally unacceptable"

The French daily reports that the NSA collected 70.3 million recordings of French phone calls from December 10th, 2012 to January 8th, 2013; on average, the agency executed about 3 million data intercepts per day. A program called "US-985D" allowed the NSA to automatically intercept calls and text messages sent from certain phone numbers, though details on the techniques used to obtain these data — codenamed in classified documents as "DRTBOX" and "WHITEBOX" — remain unclear. Text messages were reportedly intercepted based on certain keywords and the NSA collected associated metadata, though it's not clear whether the content of the messages were retained, or if the program is still active.

The identities of targeted individuals are equally unclear, though Le Monde writes that the size of the NSA's operation suggests that the agency has been conducting surveillance not only on suspected terrorists, but people who "belong to the worlds of business, politics, or French state administration." In September, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the NSA conducted surveillance on the French Foreign Ministry's computer networks as part of an attempt to learn more about the country's foreign policy objectives and weapons trade agreements.

Revelations about the NSA's surveillance government have raised diplomatic tensions across the globe, most notably in Brazil and Germany. One document obtained by Le Monde shows that from February 8th to March 8th, the agency collected 124.8 billion pieces of data worldwide. Within Europe, France trails only Germany and the UK in terms of total intercepts, the paper noted.

Le Monde, France's leading newspaper, reported on the French government's domestic surveillance program in July. With the help of Greenwald, the daily will now turn its attention to the NSA.

Greenwald, who left his position at The Guardian last week to launch a new venture with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, has been working with Le Monde since August and will contribute to the newspaper's coverage of NSA surveillance going forward. The Brazil-based journalist has played a pivotal role in exposing the breadth of the NSA's spying program, working closely with documentarian Laura Poitras, Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman, and Snowden, whose precise whereabouts remain unknown.

"it enables our lives, our contacts, and our opinions to be read like an open book."

"Le Monde considers that the public must not be kept ignorant of wire-tapping and surveillance programmes which are assuming dimensions such that they destroy any principle of democratic checks and balances," Le Monde journalist Natalie Nougayrède wrote in an editorial Monday. "Our approach is not to uphold or to practice absolute transparency which would consist in publishing all the data about everything, in its totality and irresponsibly."

"The 'Snowden revelations' are not aimed at weakening democratic societies but at strengthening them," Nougayrède continued, "promoting awareness of the risks which this vast data search implies for our values, as it enables our lives, our contacts, and our opinions to be read like an open book."