French spies are storing hoards of citizens’ communications data and they might be breaking the law
Not wanting to be left out of the international furore over government surveillance, French media have revealed France’s intelligence service is snooping on the country’s emails, phone calls and social media use.
France’s General Directorate of External Security (DGSE) intercepts emails and phone calls between France and other countries, storing details, known as meta data, not the content of communications, according to Le Monde.
The activity is very similar to the US PRISM programme revealed by Edward Snowden, and the French privacy regulator has confirmed to TechWeekEurope it appears to be illegal. Despite this, the paper reports it is well known to politicians in France, and has also been reported in our sister site, ITespresso.
The DGSE “systematically collects the electromagnetic signals emitted by computers and telephones in France, and the flow of signals between France and countries abroad: the entirety of our communications are being spied on,” says the paper. All messages and phone bills are stored for years.
“If this immense database was used just by the DGSE, which operates only outside French borders, it would already be illegal. But the six other intelligence services – among them the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, the customs service and the Tracfin anti-money-laundering service – delve into this base daily for the data of interest to them.”
The huge amounts of data collected are compressed and stored at DGSE headquarters on Boulevard Mortier in Paris. The authorities have been surprisingly open, dropping several hints about it over the years. Le Monde quotes a recent DGSE memo which speaks of how the “mutualisation” of DGSE’s data can benefit “the entire intelligence community”.
DGSE is also proud of its hardware, using a custom-built supercomputer based around field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to handle dozens of petabytes of data. The computer could be the largest in Europe outside Great Britain.
It saved four billion communications in 2013, and can handle up to one billion at a time, according to the technical director of DGSE, Bernard Barbier, and it uses enough energy to provide heat for all the DGSE’s buildings – so at least the French PRISM is green.
“Today, our targets are the networks of the public at large,” Barbier said earlier in 2013, Le Monde reports, “because they are used by terrorists.”
The French privacy regulator, CNIL gave us the following statement. “The legal system governing security interceptions forbids the establishment by the intelligence services of a procedure like Prism. Each request for the requisition or interception of data must be targeted and may not be carried out massively in terms of the quantity or the time period. Such practices thus have no legal foundation.”
DGSE has not yet responded to our requests for information.