On 21 October 2013, the French government summoned Charles Rivkin, the US ambassador in France, demanding urgent explanation regarding the revelations by Le Monde that, according to the documents released by Edward Snowden, NSA has intercepted French citizens’ phone and internet communications, at a massive scale.
Le Monde revealed on that day that, during a 30-day period in December 2012 and January 2013, more than 70 million French phone calls were intercepted and text messages were also swept based on keywords. The interceptions appear to have targeted not only people with suspected terrorist links but also people in business, politics and the French administration, under a programme codenamed US-985D.
According to the information obtained by Le Monde, when a telephone number is used in France, it activates a signal which automatically triggers the recording of the call. It seems this type of surveillance system picks up SMS messages and their content as well, by using key words. NSA then apparently stores the history of the connections or the meta-data.
The French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, demanded the US to provide "clear answers, justifying the reasons these practices were used and above all creating the conditions of transparency so these practices can be put to an end". The White House’s first response was that the US "gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations".
"These kinds of practices between partners, that violate privacy, are totally unacceptable. We must quickly assure that these practices aren’t repeated," also stated French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on the same day. The day was rich in events as U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande also had a phone discussion on the subject.
A news release from Hollande’s office said he expressed his "deep disapproval with regard to these practices" and stated that such alleged activities would be unacceptable between allies and friends. The press release also states that the two presidents agreed that French and American intelligence services would cooperate to investigate the issue.
"The President and President Hollande discussed recent disclosures in the press — some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed. The President made clear that the United States has begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share," says a news release from the White House.
This is not the only time France had issues with NSA spying activities. In July, Hollande threatened to suspend negotiations for a transatlantic free trade agreement after reports in the Guardian and Der Spiegel that the NSA spied on EU offices and European diplomatic missions in Washington and at the UN in New York.
Yet, also in July, Le Monde reported that France runs its own vast electronic surveillance operation, intercepting and stocking data from citizens’ phone and internet activity, using similar methods to the NSA’s Prism programme.
Snowden leaks: France summons US envoy over NSA surveillance claims (21.10.2013)
France in the NSA’s crosshair : phone networks under surveillance (21.10.2013)
How NSA spies on France (only in French, 21.10.2013)
Editorial of "Le Monde": fighting Big Brother (only in French, 21.10.2013)
US spy agency targets French firms (21.10.2013)
Report: U.S. intercepts French phone calls on a ‘massive scale’ (22.10.2013)