French Plan for ‘Mega Database’ of Citizens’ Personal Data Triggers Protests

By Fayçal Benhassain | November 10, 2016 | 7:27pm EST
An official at French Office of False Documents and Identity Fraud displays a false passport. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu, File)

Paris ( – The French government is under fire for quietly issuing a decree establishing a mega-database of personal details of 60 million French citizens, a move privacy campaigners view as potentially dangerous.

The database established by the decree issued by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve will affect every holder of a French passport or identity card, except for children under 12 years of age.

Information to be stored includes a photo, date and place of birth, address, eye color, weight and marital status. Fingerprints were to have been included too, although Cazeneuve dropped that plan amid massive criticism.

The ministry said the purpose of the database, known as the Titres Electroniques Securises (TES), is to combat documents fraud. Access to the files will be restricted to authorized police and gendarmes (soldiers carrying out policing duties) and the intelligence services.

The government has been slammed for issuing the decree over a long weekend at the end of October, coinciding with Halloween and a Monday bank holiday when many remember loved ones who have passed away. (Some critics labelled it the “Halloween decree.”)

“It has been published quietly so as not to prompt people’s concerns,” said Axelle Lemaire, whose position of secretary of state for digital affairs is a cabinet post just below that of a minister.

“Its publication shows a major dysfunction of the government,” she said, adding that she had not been consulted by the minister about the decision.

The French Digital Council (Conseil National du Numérique, CNNum in French), a watchdog that assesses impacts of digital technologies on society and the economy, strongly criticized the government.

“We haven’t even been consulted on this matter although it is exactly our role and mission as defined by the government that created us in 2011,” CNNum president Mounir Mahjoubi said in a phone interview.

“In principle the government should consult us on a topic, or we choose a topic that could impact our society and we take it to the government. But not this time,” he said.

CNNum is demanding that the government stop the implementation of the TES plan and consider alternatives that respect rights but is also safer.

Mahjoubi warned that the TES could be vulnerable to hacking.

“So we want a dialogue and a consultation with the government about this database,” he said. “It is our mission to be consulted.”

In an effort to have the minister review its plan, the CNNum says it will launch a national discussion about the project.

“We put a platform online to get the opinion of the public in order for us to publish a document about the opportunity to create such a database and how to improve it, both legally and technologically”, said Mahjoubi.

Opinions will be collected for ten days, before being handed over to the minister.

Created in 2011, CNNum has 30 members from various sectors of the economy and society, chosen by the government to serve for three-year terms.

The government did consult the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), an independent administrative regulatory body tasked to ensure that data privacy law is applied to the collection, storage, and use of personal data.

But – contrary to what Cazeneuve said at a press conference – the CNIL said in a report made public since that although the TES objectives are “specified, explicit and legitimate,” data contained in the files are at risk.

CNIL president Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin went further, saying in a statement that, “It is a serious, important matter that affects all French. I think it necessary that there be a collective decision on such a sensitive subject, not only regarding its content but its very existence.”

"It can really go wrong at any time, for a lot of reasons," complained Françoise Dumont, president of the League of Human Rights.

Even members of parliament were surprised not to have been consulted before the publication of the decree. They are now demanding a session to discuss the TES.

Cazeneuve went to the lower house of parliament on Wednesday to present the discuss the plan and hear representatives’ views. But he insisted it would be a consultation only, with no vote taken on the matter.

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