France’s government last week announced the creation of a highly controversial new database that will collect and store personal information on nearly everyone living in the country who holds a French identity card or passport.
The massive database, known as Secure Electronic Documents (Titres électroniques sécurisés or TES), was decreed by the government on October 30 in an effort to crack down on identity theft.
The move sparked immediate outrage in the French media, with weekly magazine L’Observateur describing it as “terrifying”, and daily newspaper Libération calling it a “mega database that will do no good”.
The TES will affect 60 million people and marks the first time the country has collected population data on such a scale since the start of the Nazi Occupation in 1940.
The database will include all the same information included on a French identity card or passport, depending on which a person holds: The first and last names, address, eye colour, weight, marital status, a photograph and the fingerprints of nearly everyone in France (with the exception of children under the age of 12) will be compiled into a single centralised system.
The information taken from passports will be stored for 15 years while identity card information will be kept for 20.
Same-same, but different?
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was forced to defend the TES during a question-and-answer session in government on Wednesday following vocal criticisms of the system.
Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas also justified the database, saying it offered “better security for [identity cards and passports]” in a Facebook post published the same day.
Yet despite the efforts of Cazeneuve and Urvoas, both Socialists, it is unlikely that opposition to TES will dissipate. For some, the database signifies a renunciation of the values of the left. In 2012, former president Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative Les Républicains party (formerly the UMP) proposed a similar system, which was slammed by the Socialists at the time.
“The two [databases] are relatively similar in the sense that the one proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, which was known as the ‘honest people’s file’, also sought to regroup all personal information linked to passports and identity cards, including digital photographs and fingerprints,” Antoine Cheron, a lawyer specialised in emerging technologies with the French firm ACBM, told FRANCE 24.
Ironically, one of the most vocal critics of Sarkozy’s “honest people’s file” was Urvoas, who has now been tasked with defending a similar system.
The main difference between the two databases is that the one Sarkozy proposed in 2012 would have allowed the police to use the information it contained to investigate cases, particularly those linked to terrorism. It was partly for this reason that the Constitutional Court banned Sarkozy’s database, saying that it “failed to safeguard against the risk of arbitrary use”.
The TES, on the other hand, can only be accessed by authorities to verify an individual’s identity.
But the government’s decision to issue a decree on the system instead of submitting a bill for parliamentary approval has raised questions over the database’s legality.
“One could think that the government is trying to circumvent the Constitutional Court by issuing a decree, because the only way to contest it now is to go to the State Council [Conseil d’état, France’s highest administrative court],” Cheron said.
Cheron also questioned the decision to issue a decree. “From a legal perspective, there’s nothing to prevent the government from creating a database by decree, but there are some politicians who believe that such a system, given the scale, should not exist without a major public debate,” he said.
The lawyer’s comments echoed almost word-for-word those of Socialist Senator Gaëtan Gorce, who called for a “parliamentary debate” on TES in an interview with Libération on Monday.
The database has sparked just as many ethical objections as it has political. Critics fear that the increased security it promises will come at the expense of individual civil liberties and privacy.
“Despite the government’s denials, the database’s contents could eventually be paired, for example, with information collected from surveillance cameras,” Cheron explained. Authorities might then someday be able to cross-reference ID photos with video footage to geolocate any individual in France at any given time, in a scenario worthy of an Orwell novel.
Back in 2012 Urvoas wrote a blog post entitled, “Against the honest people’s file”, in which he warned against another possible risk of creating a database like TES: hacking.
“No computer system is impenetrable. Any database can be hacked. It’s just a question of time,” he wrote.