France planning to allow use of algorithms to detect extremism online

By Angelique Chrisafis

The French government is planning to harden counter-terrorism laws, permitting the use of algorithms to detect online extremist activity, amid a growing political row over security in the run up to next year’s presidential race.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, is under pressure over a spate of recent terror attacks, often committed by isolated young men armed with knives and unknown to the security services. The profile of the most recent attackers – including a Tunisian man who killed a police employee in a quiet commuter town west of Paris on Friday – is very different from the major terrorist gun and bomb attacks on Paris in 2015, which were coordinated by people who had previously fought in Syria or Iraq.

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said attackers were now “isolated individuals, increasingly younger, unknown to intelligence services, and often without any links to established Islamist groups”. This was a growing problem for France because they self-radicalised very quickly, within days or weeks. These attackers no longer used text messages or mobile phones to communicate but instead went online or used social media direct messaging, he said.

Darmanin said algorithms would allow the state to potentially pick up if a person was repeatedly searching online for a topic such as beheadings. He argued that Google and other online commercial sites already used algorithms and the state should be able to as well, with independent oversight – despite concern from some rights lawyers that there would not be enough transparency.

“The last nine attacks on French soil were committed by individuals who were unknown to the security services, who were not on a watchlist and were not suspected of being radicalised,” Darmanin told France Inter radio. This meant new methods were needed, he said, adding that of 35 attacks prevented by the state since 2017, two were stopped by intelligence work online.

The attacker in Rambouillet on Friday, who had in the past sought help for psychiatric difficulties, had watched videos glorifying acts of jihad just before carrying out his attack, the anti-terrorism prosecutor has said.

Since 2017, French security agencies have been able to use algorithms to monitor messaging apps. The new bill would make that experimental use permanent and extend the use of algorithms to websites and web searches. The legislation makes permanent several temporary measures in use since France’s state of emergency after the Islamist terrorist attacks in 2015. It would give security agencies more power to watch over and limit the movements of high-risk individuals after release from jail, for two years rather than one.

Twenty-five people have died in 14 attacks in France since 2017. The Rambouillet attack last week prompted fierce criticism of Macron from the mainstream right, where key figures said immigration and terrorism were connected, and from the far-right Marine Le Pen, who said French people were “encircled by delinquency and criminality”.

The prime minister, Jean Castex, said on Wednesday that immigration policies and terrorism policies must be kept separate. Three-quarters of terrorist attacks in France in the past five years were carried out by French nationals. But the interior minister reiterated that the government wanted to clamp down on illegal immigration at Europe’s borders.

Macron, who was elected on a centrist manifesto in 2017 but is seen by critics as moving to the right, has in recent weeks deliberately appealed to voters with a promise to improve security. He told the right-leaning Le Figaro he would fight for French people’s “right to a peaceful life”, conscious that security is a growing concern in relation to next year’s presidential race.

All polls currently show that the far-right Le Pen would make it to a final round runoff against Macron in the 2022 presidential election and increase her vote. With no clear candidate on the mainstream right and the left divided, Le Pen is increasingly attacking Macron on security, terrorism and immigration. An Ifop poll this weekend for the Journal du Dimanche found 86% of people think security issues will play an important part in their vote in 2022.