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Threat to freedom and privacy from police use of spyware

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is worried about a bill that would allow the French police to use spyware to obtain information from privately-owned computers and Internet cafés as part of their efforts to combat organised crime. The concern is shared by the National Commission for Information Technology and Freedom (CNIL), which has examined the bill at the government's request.

"We fear that excessive spyware use by the police could threaten the confidentiality of journalists' sources," Reporters Without Borders said. "The circumstances in which spyware can be used to obtain information from computers needs to be more clearly defined. We urge legislators to make the appropriate amendments to the bill."

The bill, which would add 10 articles to the criminal code, was submitted to the council of ministers on 27 May and is to be discussed by the National Assembly at the end of the year. Subject to oversight by a judge, it would allow the police to use remotely-introduced spyware to obtain computer data without the knowledge and consent of those concerned.

The CNIL began examining seven of the bill's articles at the interior ministry's request on 16 April. In its opinion, issued on 24 July, it described them as extremely "sensitive" because they would represent a major exception to the principles of a January 1978 law protecting personal data. Invasions of privacy under the bill should be "proportionate to the goal pursued," the commission said.

The spyware would allow the police to capture all key strokes and everything appearing on screen for up to eight months. The commission voiced particular concern about the collection of data from law firms, court clerks, doctors and newspapers, and called for solid guarantees to avoid abuses.

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