For over a year, French investigative publication Reflets.info has been investigating surveillance activities on the many fiber-optic networks connecting France to northern Africa and the Middle East.

“Our observation is that everywhere you can find a Eagle/Amesys-Bull surveillance installation sold by France to a foreign dictatorship, you also find an Alcatel fiber optics plugged to the country,” Reflets’s Fabrice Epelboin told the Daily Dot. “Our guess is that those surveillance installations are oversized in order to have a dual usage,” giving the buyer surveillance capacity and allowing French intelligence officials to capture, copy, and analyze traffic. 

Reflets has detected such surveillance installations in a number of countries, including Libya, Benin, Morocco, and Qatar. 

The Alcatel cable to Tripoli, Libya, for instance, contained capacity far in excess of possible country-specific users. The most likely use for such an overbuild is the capture and copy and redirection of traffic, according to Reflets writer Kitetoa

Eagle/Amesys-Bull and Alcatel are both French companies with a cozy relationship to the government. In fact, the French State Secretary for the Digital Economy said France would never let Alcatel go bankrupt because its fibre-optic network was a critical part of their cybersurveillance program.

Other things established by Reflets (along with other French publications like the Le Canard Enchainé and Le Figaro) include the following:

  • The military secret services were involved in setting up surveillance gear in many foreign countries. For instance, the Direction du Renseignement Militaire (the French equivalent of the Defense Intelligence Agency) was helped Amesys to set up the Eagle surveillance system in Libya.
  • Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was instrumental in transforming Bull, a French computer company which started in the Thirties, into a powerful surveillance company.
  • The surveillance business in Libya is one chapter of the famous “Karachi affair” scandal, and it was recently revealed that not only did Sarkozy get €50 million ($65.7 million U.S.) of campaign funding from Muammar Gaddafi out of it, but the French Socialist Party also profited.
  • The French government-controlled “Banque Publique d'investissement” has funded not only Amesys-Bull, but also Qosmos, another infamous surveillance gear maker busted by Reflets a few months after the Tunisian revolution (later on busted by Bloomberg in Syria).

The French government’s relationship to these activities is possibly even more bald-faced than the American government’s attitude toward PRISM. Gérard Longuet, former defense minister under Sarkozy, for example, once told the National Assembly that he knew nothing about the French company Bull. 

Longuet’s daughter was the company’s chief communication officer.

In America, the NSA and other intelligence organizations and their defenders have made the case that their activities are OK because they are legal, even if that legality is of a marginal, secretive nature. France domestic spying activities, Epelboin notes, are legal simply because they are not illegal. 

“France has no First or Fourth Amendment,” he said, referring to the U.S. Bill of Rights’ guarantees of free speech and restriction against unreasonable search and seizure, respectively. “So technically, these actions are all legal.” 

Graphic by Shuttleworth Foundation/Flickr