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Is French outrage against U.S. spying misplaced?

France is no laggard in carrying out NSA-like surveillance of its own, according to reports

October 22, 2013 09:56 AM ET

Computerworld - The anger expressed by French officials following revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency gathered data on millions of phone calls involving French citizens appears misplaced considering reports of the country's own record of domestic and international surveillance.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius on Monday summoned U.S. ambassador to France Charles Rivkin to a meet to discuss what he called the "totally unacceptable" collection of data on telephone calls by French citizens.

Fabius said he called the meeting to discuss a report in the French newspaper Le Monde that described the NSA's collection of data from more than 70.3 million phone calls made by French citizens and residents between Dec. 2012 and January 2013.

The report was based on data provided by former NSA contractor-turned-fugitive Edward Snowden, whose leaks to the media earlier this year have focused unprecedented attention on NSA surveillance activities.

A White House spokeswoman today downplayed the latest development and noted that other nations conduct similar spying programs.

"We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said via email.

"As the President said in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, we've begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share," she added.

The latest revelations are sure to reinforce perceptions that the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies act as Internet Big Brothers, scooping up huge amounts of personal data from citizens in countries around the world.

However, France also conducts such spy activities, according to reports in LeMonde.

In July, the newspaper published a detailed report about a spy program similar to the NSA PRISM program detailed in the classified documents leaked by Snowden. The French program is overseen by the General Directorate of External Security (the DGSE).

According to Le Monde, the technical director of France's DGSE has spoken publicly about the system on two occasions, once in 2010 at a security symposium and later at a conference organized by the Association of Reservists in Encryption and Information Security.

Le Monde reported that the DSGE official said the agency's targets are the "networks of the public at large."

Also, an unnamed parliamentarian told the French paper that a large portion of "electronic connections" in France are "intercepted and stocked" by the DGSE.

More details on the French spy program "appear discreetly in parliamentary documents," LeMonde reported. For instance, a parliamentary report on April 10 reported that eight deputies and senators in France's intelligence delegation cited the status of the program.

The report said the French intelligence agency monitors, collects and stores huge amounts of email, SMS messages, phone bills and interactions on services such as Facebook and Twitter. The DGSE "systematically collects the electromagnetic signals emitted by computers and telephones in France, and the flow of signals between France and countries abroad," Le Monde said, citing government documents and public disclosures.

Like the NSA, the DGSE also methodically collects metadata on all activity that takes place on Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo, Le Monde said. "It's what the parliamentary intelligence delegation very aptly calls "intelligence of electromagnetic origin," the equivalent of the NSA's SigInt, or signals intelligence, the report said.

The French spying activities had faced criticism well before to the Snowden leaks.

In 2011, a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked on whistleblower site Wikileaks included a report that described France as a leader in industrial spying in Europe. According to the cable, French industrial espionage programs are far ahead of data collection programs in Russia, China and other countries.

"French espionage is so widespread that the damage (it causes) the German economy are larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia," the leaked cable said, according to a report by CBS News.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter@jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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