The Paris prosecutor’s office revealed on Wednesday that it is running a preliminary investigation into complaints of criminal wrongdoing connected to the United States’ PRISM spying program.
The inquiry—begun on July 16—is addressing allegations of fraudulent access to data systems, illegal collection of personal data, violation of privacy, and breach of confidentiality of correspondence, according to a source assigned to the Regional Directorate of the Judicial Police.
French prosecutors opened the investigation following a joint complaint from two civil liberties groups, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the French Human Rights League (LDH), which alleged PRISM had violated the French penal code.
As this is a preliminary investigation, French police and prosecutors are simply working to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to launch a formal investigation.
While the complaint was filed against “persons unknown,” there is little doubt that it targeted the US National Security Agency and the FBI. It also named Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Paltak, AOL, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and Apple as potential “accomplices.”
Emmanuel Daoud, a member of the FIDH legal team, said that the complaint’s main purpose was to uncover what roles, if any, the named technology companies played in US espionage.
Based on the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the FIDH and LDH claim that the US illegally intercepted 2 million private French communications.
The US has defended the NSA’s activities, calling them vital to counterterrorism efforts. General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA and US military cyber operations, has testified that PRISM thwarted 50 terrorist plots, including planned attacks on the New York Stock Exchange and the New York subway system.
PRISM’s supporters have pointed to the gap between September 11 and the Boston Marathon bombings, the two most recent major attacks on US soil. Between 2002 and 2013, nearly all terrorist attacks in the US were isolated incidents carried out by lone gunmen.
Under US law, PRISM’s activities are permissible. By established precedent, government agencies have broad powers to monitor who telecommunicates with whom. It is only when the government wishes to monitor messages’ contents that legal requirements become somewhat more stringent.
France, however, has higher standards of scrutiny for government surveillance—the activities PRISM is charged with are all potential crimes under French law. And when the government in question is not France’s, but that of a foreign power, the legal standards of scrutiny presumably become tougher.
It is unlikely that a French court would try to impose penalties on the US intelligence community. There is precedent, however, for legal action against foreign IT corporations. Twitter, for one, has faced repeated legal battles, due to conflicts between its lax approach to content monitoring and rigid French hate speech laws.
This investigation comes at a vital time for the Franco-American alliance, as the two powers look set to conduct joint military operations in Syria. In a recent speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to France as America’s “oldest ally.”
Separate from the investigation, France has set up a national data protection task force, the National Committee for Information and Liberties (CNIL). Besides analyzing the extent of foreign spying in France, the CNIL has asked the French government to clarify the potential existence of a PRISM-style domestic surveillance program. Under French law, such a program would be outside of the judicial framework.