Frenchman Macron considers artificial intelligence to monitor terrorism


PARIS – The government of French President Emmanuel Macron aims to deploy algorithms and other technologies to monitor the web browsing of terrorism suspects amid mounting tensions over a group of retired generals who recently warned the country was slipping into civil war.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Wednesday the government plans to submit a bill to parliament asking for permanent authorization to order telecom companies to monitor not only phone data, but also full URLs of specific web pages. that their users visit in real time. Government algorithms would alert intelligence officials when certain criteria are met, such as a web user visiting a specific sequence of pages.

Mr Macron has come under intense pressure to crack down on terrorism as well as Islamist separatism, an ideology his government claims is fueling attacks by radicalizing segments of France‘s Muslim minority. A college teacher was beheaded in a terrorist attack in October, and an administrative police officer was stabbed to death on Friday in a terrorist attack on a police station. On the same day, Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Rally party, lent her support to a group of retired generals who published a letter in the far-right magazine Valuers Actuelles, claiming that the spread of Islamism and other ideologies were pushing France towards civil war.

In the letter to Mr. Macron, the generals call for the eradication of what they see as threats to France’s national identity, ranging from the anti-racism movement, which the letter says seeks to erase history French, to “Islamism and the hordes of the suburbs”, a reference to the working-class suburbs of France which have strong Muslim populations.

“There is no time for procrastination. Otherwise, tomorrow a civil war will end this growing chaos. And the deaths, for which you will be responsible, number in the thousands, ”the letter says.

A 2016 ceremony on Place de la République in Paris paid tribute to the victims of the previous year’s attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.


Yohan Valat / Press Pool

On Wednesday, Mr. Castex declared: “I condemn in the strongest terms this initiative, which is contrary to our republican principles and to the honor and the duty of the army.”

“It’s not about the army. These generals do not represent anyone other than themselves, ”he added.

General François Lecointre, a senior French military official, said in an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien published Wednesday that he had identified 18 active-duty military personnel who signed the letter. He said they would be disciplined.

Ms Le Pen, who lost to Mr Macron in 2017 and challenges him in next year’s presidential election, published an open letter in Valeurs Actuelles on Friday, praising the generals and calling on them to join her in a battle that she described as political and peaceful.

“The concerns that you courageously express cannot remain at the stage of expressing outrage, however powerful it may be,” Ms. Le Pen wrote.

Mr Castex noted that the generals’ letter was issued to mark the 60th anniversary of a failed coup – led by another group of retired generals in 1961 – which sought to prevent the president from l Charles de Gaulle era to withdraw from Algeria, a former French colony.

“How can people – in particular Madame Le Pen, who aspires to exercise the responsibilities of the state – can support an initiative that does not exclude turning against the republican state? Said Mr. Castex.

Marine Le Pen, a challenger for the presidency next year, backed retired generals who said France was being pushed into a civil war.


Michel Euler / Associated press

In its new counterterrorism and intelligence bill, the government proposes to expand a predominantly telephone-based surveillance system first put in place after a wave of terrorist attacks in 2015 to also encompass navigation on the Web, with the aim of detecting potential terrorists who are not t on the radar of the authorities.

“We have gone from an external threat, with highly lethal attacks against France in 2015, to an internal threat, and much more difficult to follow using traditional intelligence techniques,” the French minister of intelligence said on Wednesday. Interior Gérard Darmanin.

The original surveillance system, which began operating in 2017 and is expected to expire at the end of July, currently requires carriers to monitor telecommunications metadata on their networks using three separate algorithms aimed at to detect patterns that could suggest terrorism. A parliamentary report last year found that the system “has produced interesting results,” but the breadth of data it collects, mostly based on telephone data, does not provide investigators with “a sufficient level of relevance. and specificity ”.

“Terrorists are using less and less normal phones and text messages, and are using the Internet more and more,” Darmanin said on Wednesday.

Mr Darmanin said intelligence officials would need the approval of him, the prime minister and an outside agency to unmask a person reported for his navigation.

Many large websites use a common form of encryption that hides the specific page a user is visiting, but for other, often smaller sites, this potentially revealing data is available to telecom operators to share with officials. intelligence.

A man offered flowers to a policeman in a town southwest of Paris where a policeman was stabbed to death last week.


christophe petit tesson / EPA / Shutterstock

In the future, French officials plan to deploy systems using artificial intelligence to help with surveillance. Part of the bill introduced on Wednesday would allow French intelligence officials to use older intelligence data, including data the government is currently not allowed to keep, to train AI systems to look for evidence. unforeseen models and to develop new intelligence tools. An Interior Ministry official said the data would be anonymized, although privacy experts say anonymizing the data so that it cannot be reassigned later is difficult.

“Artificial intelligence is clearly an area that should be open to intelligence services,” the official said. “We are fighting to ensure that no technological opportunity offered today is closed to intelligence or security services.”

French officials say they are reworking the text of the law to comply with a French court ruling, which emerged from a ruling by the European Union’s highest court last fall. The EU court ruled that governments could, in some cases, order telecom companies to retain data indiscriminately, but only for a limited period of time in the event of a serious threat to national security.

Privacy and digital rights activists argue that maintaining and expanding the government’s power to order surveillance of telecommunications data distorts this decision.

“The goal is to collect as much data as possible,” said Bastien Le Querrec, member of the litigation group of the French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net. “This is the definition of mass surveillance.”

Write to Stacy Meichtry at [email protected] and Sam Schechner at [email protected]

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