French prosecutor starts preliminary inquiry into Prism privacy violations

Two human rights organizations contend that NSA and FBI spying may have violated French law

Allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on French citizens with its Prism program have prompted the French public prosecutor to begin a preliminary inquiry, a court spokeswoman said Thursday.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the French Human Rights League (LDH) filed a 16-page complaint against persons unknown with the Paris High Court on July 11.

In it they alleged that a number of offenses had been committed, including collection of personal data by illegal means, breach of privacy, fraudulent access to a computer system and interception of electronic communications.

They asked the public prosecutor to investigate the alleged offenses, which they said were revealed in documents released in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

A French court should investigate because French law applies when the victim of a crime is French, even if it is committed outside the country, the FIDH and the LDH said in their complaint.

The documents revealed by Snowden indicate that the NSA and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation may have committed a number of offenses under French law, the two organizations claimed. In addition, they said, companies named in the documents including AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo could be considered accomplices.

The prosecutor has now begun a preliminary inquiry, a spokeswoman for the court said Thursday. The first phase of the inquiry is to ask the FIDH and the LDH to clarify their complaints, and it is too early to say what steps may be taken after that, she said.

Allegations that the NSA and others are spying on European citizens will also be the topic of a meeting of the European Commission's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee next Thursday. The committee is due to meet journalists who uncovered the matter.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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