PARIS, FRANCE (JULY 5, 2013) (REUTERS) - Data from phone and internet use in France was stocked in a big database which could be consulted by other French intelligence and security agencies as well as the police, intelligence expert and journalist Jean-March Manach said on Friday (July 5) after French newspaper Le Monde reported France's external intelligence agency spies on the public.
The newspaper said on Thursday the DGSE (General Department for External Security) intercepted signals from computers and telephones in France, and between France and other countries, although not the content of phone calls, to create a map of "who is talking to whom". It said the activity was illegal.
"All of our communications are spied on," wrote Le Monde, which based its report on unnamed intelligence sources as well as remarks made publicly by intelligence officials.
"Emails, text messages, telephone records, access to Facebook and Twitter are then stored for years," it said.
The activities described are similar to those carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency, as described in documents leaked by former NSA contractorEdward Snowden.
"What is new is that DGSE collects lots of data, metadata, and gives lots of those data to other secret intelligence French services, to seven or eight other intelligence services. That's new, because we knew that DGSE monitored communications, but we don't know at which scale this surveillance goes. But we did not know until yesterday that it was the agency that provides other intelligence services all they need. It can be political, economic, it can be terrorism-related stuff, so that's new," Marnach, a specialist in intelligence services, told Reuters Television.
Le Monde's report comes amid a storm over media allegations that Washington regularly spies on European citizens and embassies. The allegations, made in the German magazine Der Spiegel, sparked concern from data protection watchdogs and irked European governments just as major transatlantic trade talks are about to start.
But Le Monde said France's DGSE was more interested in finding out who was speaking to whom than in combing through the content of private communications. It said the DGSE stored a mass of such metadata in the basement of its Paris headquarters.
"Of what use is the metadata? It's exactly what the GCHQ (the British Government Communications Headquarters) and the NSA do. The GCHQ is the British NSA. They create a social graph to learn about people's relationships with each other. It's a kind of a Facebook for intelligence services to be able to know who is in contact with whom. Because in the framework of investigations, what is really important for police investigations and for the intelligence services in general, is to know who the contacts of those who interest them are," Marnach explained.
"Most of the time it says much more than the content of a phone call. We all know that where terrorism or intelligence are concerned, people won't necessarily communicate secrets clearly on the phone. On the contrary, the fact that you can see that so and so person is calling another person often on the phone, means that they preparing something together. That's what interests them," he added.
France's seven other intelligence services, including domestic secret services and customs and money-laundering watchdogs, have access to the data and can tap into it freely as a means to spot people whose communications seem suspicious, whom they can then track with more intrusive techniques such as phone-tapping,Le Monde wrote.
The Guardian newspaper reported last month that Britain had a similar spying programme on international phone and Internet traffic and was sharing vast quantities of personal information with the American NSA.