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PM dismisses 'French Patriot Act' fears as spies get more powers

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls attends a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer (Reuters)

By Julien Ponthus and Ingrid Melander PARIS (Reuters) - French spy agencies will have more powers to bug and track would-be Islamist attackers and authorities will be able to force Internet providers to monitor suspicious behavior under a draft law unveiled on Thursday. Just over two months after 17 people were killed in attacks by homegrown Islamist gunmen in Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a bill to 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. Civil liberties advocates said the bill went too far and lacked adequate privacy protections but Valls pledged France would not hoover up vast quantities of data under the new law. "This is not a French Patriot Act," Valls told a news conference, referring to the U.S. law introduced in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden last year disclosed classified details about the breadth of the intelligence gathering, sparking an international outcry. Under the new French law, instead of requiring a judge's approval, surveillance will be agreed within the public administration after advice by a newly created supervisory body specifically dedicated to this. In exceptional cases, surveillance agencies will be able to use so-called "IMSI Catcher" spy devices that catch all type of phone, internet or text messaging conversation in an area. "The terrorism threat is at an unprecedented level," said Valls a day after gunmen stormed Tunisia's national museum, killing two Tunisians and 17 foreign tourists, including two French nationals. "Nowadays, only one out of two people who go to Syria have been detected before they leave. We need to tighten the net on the surveillance of radicalized and dangerous people," Valls said. PRIVACY FEARS The draft bill, which goes to parliament in April for approval, also allows the government to require that web providers automatically track suspicious behavior. They would have to set up systems to monitor metadata and not the content of communications. If the activity of specific internet users looks suspicious, the government could then demand access to their personal information. While Valls said there would be no mass surveillance, this measure is one of the most contested parts of the draft law. "By legalizing mass surveillance methods without providing the necessary privacy protection guarantees, this bill has a devastating impact on civil liberties," said France's second-biggest lawyers' unions, the Union of French Lawyers. France's Digital Council, an independent commission that advises the government on the impact on digital technologies on society, welcomed the clearer controls on surveillance but said the bill lacked sufficient civil liberties protections. "The Council is worried about the introduction of new surveillance techniques, some of which approach mass surveillance. That is the case for the automatic treatment (of data) that can be deployed at web operators and access providers," the advisory body said in a statement. "This approach has proven to be extremely inefficient in the United States despite massive investments," said council member Tristan Nitot. Valls said the government had to act because "terrorists use the most modern communication technologies...there can be no lawless zone in the digital space." (Editing by Andrew Callus and Jon Boyle)