France to unveil anti-terrorism bill days after attack against police officer

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By Euronews  with AFP
police officers stand guard near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France on October 29, 2020.
police officers stand guard near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France on October 29, 2020.   -  Copyright  Eric Gaillard/Pool Photo via AP

An anti-terrorism bill that would enable French security services to increase its use of a controversial "algorithm" technique to detect potential threats is to be presented to the French cabinet on Wednesday.

The text, presented by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, essentially reinforces an arsenal of provisions that already exist but that the executive wants to be set in stone.

The most controversial measure concerns the so-called "algorithm" technique which allows the automated processing of connection data to detect threats while extending it to web addresses (URLs).

The bill would also increase the time allowed for collecting computer data to two months from one month currently and for the authorities to store that "dead" data for up to five years for research and development purposes and to advance the artificial intelligence of the intelligence services' "black boxes".

Speaking to France Inter radio on Wednesday morning, Darmanin defended the technique, saying that "today, if a person goes online and watches beheading videos on the Internet, we don't know. With the new law, we will know these connections."

He added that it is a question of "applying to the Internet what we apply to the telephone" in terms of surveillance.

He also said that two of the 35 terrorist attacks foiled in the country since 2017 had been "thanks to the digital traces" left by the perpetrators and that nine recent attacks were not preventable with current resources."

"Terrorists have changed their way of communicating," he went on, saying that the perpetrators of the deadly knife attacks against teacher Samuel Paty and the Nice basilica had communicated only via Facebook and Messenger, and not by telephone.

It comes just days after a policewoman was stabbed to death in Rambouillet, some 60 km southwest of Paris, in a suspected terror attack.

He also refuted as "naive" concerns about the bill infringing on civil liberties, in an interview released on Sunday by the Journal du Dimanche.

"All major companies use algorithms. And it would only be the state that could not use them" he said.

What else does the bill contain?

The proposed law would also enable authorities to seize electronic devices during "home visits" to offenders if they refuse to give access to their contents.

It would also allow for the extension of house arrest by up to two years after release from prison, compared to one now, for people sentenced to at least five years for terrorism.

Measures against people considered "particularly high-risk" of re-offending would be strengthened and would include the obligation to establish a residence in a given place for up to five years after the end of their sentence.

"It concerns a little less than a hundred prisoners who have been sentenced, who are going to be released, and who must imperatively be monitored and followed closely," Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said on France 2 Wednesday morning.

In addition, the text proposes to prohibit a person required to reside in a specific geographical area from appearing in a place where "an event subject to a particular terrorist risk due to its scale or nature" is being held, such as a sports event or a music festival.

The bill, which is due to be enacted before 31 July, is likely to spark sharp criticism from opposition lawmakers and civil liberties advocates.