America is not alone when it comes to intelligence programs designed to monitor internet and phone communications. As it turns out, France also has its own system similar to the US National Security Agency's PRISM internet surveillance and phone metadata collections efforts, according to a new report today from French newspaper Le Monde. The newspaper states that the French program is conducted by the country's intelligence agency Directorate General for External Security (DGSE), and that it collects the metadata of phone and internet communications throughout the country, including traffic from such popular web services as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo, companies that were also said to be included in the US's own PRISM program, but which also denied giving the US government "direct access" to servers.
"French politicians are said to be aware of the program"
However, as in the case of the US phone surveillance effort, the French program is described as sampling only metadata — that is, sender/caller and recipient, time of communications and length — not the contents of the communications themselves. Notaby, Le Monde doesn't specify that the French DGSE effort is being undertaken with the complicity or knowledge of the affected companies. French politicians are said to be aware of the program, but have been sworn to secrecy. In a twist from what's known about US efforts, such infomration collected in France can also reportedly be shared with the police for criminal prosections. Le Monde also points out that the French data protection commission, CNIL, also doesn't permit such a program, and yet, it is said to be technically within the law. The actual data collected in the surveillance effort is reportedly housed in the DGSE headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, near the world famous Père Lachaise Cemetery where icons including rocker Jim Morrison are buried.
The revelations come as the European Parliament, of which French is leading member, voted to launch an "in-depth inquiry" into the US's own PRISM surveillance efforts. The fact that the French DGSE is itself engaged in similar behavior should make for some awkward proceedings as that inquiry gets underway. But with the British intelligence agency GCHQ reportedly also said to also be monitoring web traffic through its own hardwired surveillance effort, the French revelations are hardly shocking, unfortunately. On the contrary, they further indicate that such telecommunications monitoring may be closer to the norm, rather than they exception, for industrialized democratic countries.
Update: A reader on Twitter has pointed us to an official English translation of the article published by Le Monde, which further describes the program and its apparent quasi-legal status, for those who don't speak or read French.
Update 2: French government officials are calling the Le Monde story inaccurate, saying all data requests are traceable and in compliance with court orders. One government spokesman commented that "French citizens are not subject to massive and permanent spying outside of all control," in contrast to the NSA's PRISM program.
Additional reporting by Amar Toor.