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France Considers Ban On Public Wi-Fi During Emergencies

French authorities proposed measures that would block public Wi-Fi and the anonymous tool Tor during a future terrorist attack.

France Considers Ban On Public Wi-Fi During Emergencies
[Photo: Flickr user John Loo]

Following the terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people last month, French officials are proposing a ban on public Wi-Fi and Tor, an Internet tool that allows users to remain anonymous, during a future emergency, Le Monde reports. The proposals are being considered as the country continues to hang in a “state of emergency”–a label that gives French authorities license to set curfews, shutter public spaces, and conduct searches without warrants.

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According to internal documents obtained by Le Monde, the ban would halt access to “free and shared” Wi-Fi in a state of emergency; French officials believe suspects could use those networks to communicate without being monitored. (WhatsApp rival Telegram, for example, is often used by ISIS because it has many layers of encryption.)

While the Wi-Fi block would apply only under a state of emergency, the proposals also seek to permanently block Tor, an anonymizing service that is widely used by whistleblowers and drug kingpins alike (think Silk Road). How France would go about denying access to Tor is still unclear, but as The Verge points out, China’s stringent censorship policy has barred use of the tool since 2012; countries like Iran and Russia have taken aim at it as well.

In response to the attacks, authorities in France and the U.S. have urged tech companies to lighten up on encryption and grant them access to protected communications–though most firms have yet to budge on the issue. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler told Congress recently that it should expand the definition of “lawful intercept” to allow more exhaustive wiretapping.

President Obama took a stance on the issue in a statement yesterday: “I will urge high-tech and law-enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” he said.

Encryption will continue to be a hotly contested topic, especially as election season plays out. But a ban on public Wi-Fi seems extreme, given that many Parisians relied on social media to find shelter during the chaos, and that so many people benefitted from the Safety Check feature on Facebook, which many Parisians used during the attacks to inform friends and family that they were safe. State of emergency or not, revoking access to the Internet can’t be the best course of action–and even the lawmakers responsible for the proposal appear to have their doubts: Le Monde reports that the documents they procured included a note that read “question of constitutionality?”

[via Gizmodo]

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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