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France’s Police Want to Get Medieval on the Anonymous Internet

Paris Turns Blue, White and Red For Victims Of Friday's Terrorist AttacksParis Turns Blue, White and Red For Victims Of Friday's Terrorist Attacks
France replaces England this week as the world's fifth largest economy following British pound's decline after Brexit.Photograph by Marc Piasecki—Getty Images

French police have drawn up a wish list of sweeping new powers over internet use to crack down on suspected terrorists in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed over 130 people.

The list, drawn up at the request of the Interior Ministry in response to the November 13 terrorist attacks, amount to the most extreme measures yet in a western democracy to end anonymous and untraceable use of the internet and mobile phone networks. But it includes measures that will horrify privacy campaigners and rights groups, not to mention lawyers who would have the job of reconciling them with the French constitution.

According to the newspaper Le Monde, the measures include:

  1. A ban on free wi-fi in public areas during a state of emergency (parliament has allowed President Francois Hollande to extend the current state of emergency to three months).
  2. A complete ban on the TOR browser and the shutting of all connections linking the TOR routing network in France with other countries. TOR enables users to disguise their location by sending data through an elaborate chain of relays, and is explicitly supported by the State Department as a legitimate tool for those such as journalists working in countries where media freedom is restricted. However, critics claim its anonymity has also made it attractive to illegal activities such as paedophillia and drug-trafficking.
  3. An obligation on Internet cafés to keep records of all visitors and their metadata, effectively bringing them into line with the law governing use of the internet in hotels.
  4. A register of all fixed-line payphones and an obligation on providers to keep their call and internet connection data.
  5. A register of all VOIP apps and an obligation on their creators to hand over encryption keys. The French government already tried to include this measure in a comprehensive new law on communications surveillance earlier this year, but was forced to drop it owing to the resistance of providers of encrypted communications technology, who fear that handing over the keys to their network would kill their products and services.
  6. A ban on anonymous prepaid SIM cards. Now a plot device de rigueur for all thriller-writers, the use of the ‘burner phone’ depends on the freedom to buy prepaid credit anonymously, in contrast to phones and SIM cards sold on subscription plans.

Le Monde didn’t say what degree of political support the law enforcement agencies’ wishes are likely to enjoy. President Hollande is under intense pressure to ensure a thorough crackdown on terrorists to protect public safety, pressure that found expression in a big lurch to the right in regional elections across the country at the weekend. But at the same time, his Socialist party also prides itself on being the heirs to the revolutionary tradition of Liberty, and Hollande’s slim chances of being re-elected in 2017 also depend on him continuing to keep his party united.

In other news Tuesday, national carrier Air France (AFRAF) said the terror attacks in Paris on November 13 took a €50 million bite out of its monthly revenue, depressing its passenger load factor (which measures how many of its available seats were actually sold) by 3.6 percentage points.

“Current booking trends are in line with a progressive recovery including a very limited impact on volumes after the end of December 2015,” the airline said.