France considers stepping up internet monitoring to fight terrorism

France’s homeland security minister Manuel Valls has said he sees web monitoring as a priority in the fight to find terrorists.

Following a handful of what are thought to be terrorist attacks in France – the stabbing of a soldier in Paris last month, three soldiers and four civilians shot and killed in the south of the country last year – France is considering more internet tracking.

To fight what is being viewed as an insider threat, Manuel Valls, France's homeland security minister, told French daily newspaper Libération that monitoring online activities of suspected jihadists "must be a priority" for France.

Read this

France gets crack team of civilian cyberdefenders (who won't get to do much)

The French ministry of defense launched a "network of cyberdefence reservists" to help the country cope with online threats. But is the group more of a talking shop than actual defence force?

Read More

"The internet has become a vehicle for propaganda, for radicalisation, and for recruiting for jihad-inspired terrorism as well as extremists," Valls said, highlighting the Inspire newsletter as "the emblem of the cyberjihad strategy".

"It acts as a propaganda medium and as a practical handbook. In addition, forums and sites allow members of [a jihadist or terrorist] movement to share information and to recruit people. Our services have been busy online, resulting in legal action against those who run the sites concerned.

"But the growing use of social networks, which are more difficult to monitor, is a new challenge... The internet is a discreet way of communicating, but it still leaves traces that can be exploited by specialised services. So it must be a priority for us."

Valls' claims were supported by a parliamentary report published late last month. According to the report, "the internet has become an indispensable support mechanism for terrorism" and "plays an essential role in the ownership of jihadist culture".

The report highlights the inadequate means available to intelligence agencies to effectively monitor would-be terrorists' online activities. One such agency, the SDIG, which mainly acts on a local basis, is described as "living in the most extreme deprivation" with very limited access to a number of sites it needs to monitor (some are blocked by the police IT system Orion, meaning a separate internet access point had to be set up) and to legal interception mechanisms.

The report also calls for the intelligence agencies to be allowed to hack into suspected criminals' computers in the same way police officers can under the Loppsi law introduced in 2011, as well as to make use of fake mobile network towers to monitor phone communications. 

The report also raises the issue of the ambiguity around how online voice communications providers such as Skype are categorised: unless they're recognised as regular telecommunications operators, they can't be forced to help French authorities conduct a wiretap.

France is already actively using the Internet to monitor its citizens. Local authorities made more than three thousands requests for user data to Google back in 2012 - 50 percent more than in 2010. Reporters without Borders placed France "under surveillance" in its list of 'internet enemies' in 2011.

The organisation claims that the Loppsi law poses a critical threat to freedom of expression as it brings in government web filtering, and it especially warns against the police's use of spyware that Loppsi allows. However, there have been no reports of the spyware's use so far.