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French Parliament Debates Bill to Empower Spies

FILE - Lawmakers are seen in France’s lower house of Parliament, in Paris.

French spies could get more powers to bug and track would-be Islamist attackers inside the country and require Internet companies to monitor suspicious behavior under a bill to be debated in parliament on Monday.

Web hosting companies have raised concerns the legislation could frighten away clients, while civil liberties advocates say it lacks adequate privacy protections -- concerns dismissed by the government.

More than three months after 17 people were killed in attacks by three Islamist gunmen in Paris, the government is pushing measures that will allow spy agencies to tap phones and emails without seeking permission from a judge.

Surveillance staff will also be able to bug suspects' flats with microphones and cameras and add “keyloggers” to their computers to track every keystroke.

“The measures proposed are not aimed at installing generalized surveillance,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in an interview with the newspaper Liberation on April 11. “On the contrary it aims to target people who we need to monitor to protect the French people.”

France is monitoring an estimated 1,200 Islamists and about 200 people who have returned from fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

It has earmarked about 425 million euros [$448 million] to recruit thousands of extra police, spies and investigators to beef up surveillance and boost national security and intelligence.

Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year disclosed classified details about the breadth of the intelligence gathering, triggering an international outcry.

Among those critical of the French bill are web providers who in a column published on April 9 threatened to relocate outside France because the bill would allow intelligence services to place “black boxes” on their infrastructure with algorithms to filter communications.

They would be forced to set up systems to monitor metadata and not the content of communications under the legislation. If the activity of specific Internet users looks suspicious, the government could then demand access to their personal information.

French web hosts such as the OVH group, which said last December it was looking to invest 400 million euros in its development, say such monitoring would scare customers away to protect their private information.

“The draft bill destroys freedoms, but it is also anti-economic and essentially inefficient for the objective it sets out,” read the column signed by it and six other Internet firms. [$1 = 0.9492 euros]