French Assembly passes bill allowing police to remotely activate phone cameras and microphones for surveillance

Civil liberties groups are concerned about potential abuses.

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

French law enforcement may soon have far-reaching authority to snoop on alleged criminals. Lawmakers in France's National Assembly have passed a bill that lets police surveil suspects by remotely activating cameras, microphones and GPS location systems on phones and other devices. A judge will have to approve use of the powers, and the recently amended bill forbids use against journalists, lawyers and other "sensitive professions," according to Le Monde. The measure is also meant to limit use to serious cases, and only for a maximum of six months. Geolocation would be limited to crimes that are punishable by at least five years in prison.

An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate, but the amendment will require that legislative body's approval before it can become law.

Civil liberties advocates are alarmed. The digital rights group La Quadrature du Net previously pointed out the potential for abuse. As the bill isn't clear about what constitutes a serious crime, there are fears the French government might use this to target environmental activists and others who aren't grave threats. The organization also notes that worrying security policies have a habit of expanding to less serious crimes. Genetic registration was only used for sex offenders at first, La Quadrature says, but is now being used for most crimes.

The group further notes that the remote access may depend on security vulnerabilities. Police would be exploiting security holes instead of telling manufacturers how to patch those holes, La Quadrature says.

Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti says the powers would only be used for "dozens" of cases per year, and that this was "far away" from the surveillance state of Orwell's 1984. It will save lives, the politician argues.

The legislation comes as concerns about government device surveillance are growing. There's been a backlash against NSO Group, whose Pegasus spyware has allegedly been misused to spy on dissidents, activists and even politicians. While the French bill is more focused, it's not exactly reassuring to those worried about government overreach.