New security database angers many in France

Associated Press | September 9, 2008
By Jenny Barchfield

PARIS (AP) - A new French security database that could track anyone deemed a "possible threat to public order"—even minors as young as 13—has outraged privacy crusaders and put France's conservative government on the defensive.

Critics have collected some 130,000 signatures against the database—known by the acronym Edvige—which they contend is better suited for a police state than a modern European democracy.

President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to quell the uproar Tuesday, summoning his prime minister, national police chief and top intelligence officer for a special meeting.

Though Sarkozy stressed the crime-fighting benefits of the database, he ordered the interior minister to open immediate talks about it to ensure that it "protect freedoms," according to an official in his office. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Le Parisien daily's Tuesday edition quoted lawyer Jean-Marc Fedida as saying Edvige opens up "the possibility of tracking the entire population of France."

Edvige replaces an obsolete 1991 database that helped France's police surveillance agency track politicians, labor leaders and other activists—anyone who resorted to violence or supported the use of violence.

But Edvige goes further, gathering personal information on health and sexual orientation, dropping the minimum age for surveillance from 18 to 13 and casting a wider net, allowing security officials to track anyone considered a "possible threat to public order."

Defenders insist Edvige is a measured response to France's changing security situation—particularly after a rise in youth violence and nationwide riots that shook poor minority neighborhoods in 2005.

Jean-Pierre Dubois, the president of France's Human Rights League, called the database "the passage to a real surveillance society."

Judicial officials complain the new language defining how Edvige can be used is menacingly Orwellian.

"This police logic is that of a society that has come to consider all its youth .... as a threat," Helene Franco of a magistrates' union was quoted as saying in the Le Monde newspaper.

The clash over Edvige has spilled over into the government, with some ministers sounding alarm bells about possible civil liberties infringements.

Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie reached out to critics who say that tracking minors could have negative repercussions, saying Tuesday that minors' records could possibly be removed from the database after a time.

Human Rights Minister Rama Yade urged clarifications Tuesday, particularly about the inclusion of sexual orientation.

The Conseil d'Etat, France's highest court for questions involving the public administration, is examining more than a dozen complaints about Edvige. It is expected to rule on the database by the end of the year.

Many European governments began tracking activists after a wave of radical violence in the 1970s and 1980s.

Britain's DNA database is the largest in any country, with 5 percent of the population tracked. The database contains DNA information collected from crime scenes and taken from individuals in police custody. It is not limited to DNA samples from those convicted of a crime.

Switzerland now only keeps files on violent extremists. The country pared down its databases following an investigation in the late 1980s which revealed that security agencies had collected thousands of files on Swiss citizens, mainly left-wing activists. Some 10 percent of the Swiss are believed to have been tracked.


Associated Press writers Emmanuel Georges-Picot in Paris and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.