France has been accused of using intelligence services to implement a large-scale electronic surveillance programme to keep tabs on its citizens.
According to an investigation by leading French newspaper Le Monde, France’s foreign intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, systematically collects and records information about every line of electronic data sent by computers and telephones in the country.
The report explains data “on all emails, SMSs, telephone calls, Facebook and Twitter posts” is stored in an underground bunker beneath Paris, adding that Bernard Barbier, technical director of the agency, described the system as "the biggest information centre in Europe after the English".
It is, however, metadata, the paper says. Archives therefore include information such as where the call was made, or at what time they sent the email not the actual content of the exchanges. Officials at the French agency did not respond to requests for comment and the paper cites no sources.
“The politicians know about it, but secrecy is the rule: this French Big Brother is clandestine,” wrote reporters Jacques Follorou and Franck Johannes. “It is out of control.”
The revelation has drawn comparisons with the US NSA spying programme PRISM, which was made public by whistleblower Edward Snowden last month. But unlike its more invasive counterpart, which was used by the US to glean data from internet servers, the French programme allegedly relies on the mass interception of electronic information bouncing around global satellites.
A French MP played down the report, saying France's surveillance gathering system is not comparable with the NSA's.
Patricia Adam, who until last year headed Parliament's intelligence committee, said French spies "are line fishing, not trawling" the vast oceans of data thrown up by mobile phones, emails and Internet communication.
The accusations come after French authorities stepped into the debate over America’s alleged spying operation on the European Union and foreign embassies, including the French embassy in Washington. President François Hollande said these practices must "cease immediately" and France demanded the suspension of talks on the EU-US free trade pact until it had received full explanations about surveillance.
The foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, added to the condemnation this week by assuring the US that France did not spy on its embassy in Paris because between “partners” these “were not the sorts of things that should happen”.