NSA Spying On France, Time For America´s Mea Culpa

Few are shocked by revelations that U.S. intelligence spied on French presidents. But if Washington wants to be a good ally, it should start with a loud and clear apology to all its snooped-on friends.

French President François Hollande welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry to the Élysée Palace in Paris, on Jan. 16, 2015.
French President François Hollande welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry to the Élysée Palace in Paris, on Jan. 16, 2015.


PARIS â€" We can’t really say we’re surprised. Ever since Edward Snowden started to reveal the worldwide scope of the American intelligence services’ electronic surveillance and private data collection two years ago, ever since we were told that this mass spying went as far as snooping on German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel’s personal phone, ever since we learned that the ultimate refinement consisted in having the German secret services spy on Airbus on behalf of the Americans, hardly anything can truly surprise us.

Sooner or later, it was going to be confirmed that the Elysée Presidential Palace and French officials were also being spied on by the United States. And with the Wikileaks revelations just published in the Libération newspaper and Mediapart website, this has now become reality.

Should we then just accept it? We can’t, of course. Sure, we need to avoid the trap of naivety. Intelligence plays a crucial part in the fight against terrorism. The French government itself has just pushed forward with far-reaching legislation to reinforce its surveillance powers, even though some aspects of that bill were strongly opposed by privacy advocates. In this fight, French and European services need to cooperate with the Americans, and they need to be able to continue doing so, in accordance with the law.

Where is Washington's mea culpa?

But that’s not what this post-9/11 NSA folly is about. Snooping on Angela Merkel or François Hollande, or indeed on Airbus or environment advisers, has nothing whatsoever to do with fighting terrorism. It does however say a lot about the surge of a monstrous machine with almost unlimited technological might that considers itself to be above all control, be it from the justice, political and democratic systems.

It’s a very worrying fact that such a machine is allowed to operate inside such a formidable power as the United States. Of course, we would like to know whether these excesses are due to the services’ being drunk on their infinite capabilities and left on autopilot mode, or whether they stem from specific orders at the highest level.

In both cases, such practices are intolerable. Washington’s very limited denials, by what they omit, give away one clue, namely that President Barack Obama seems to have put an end to it in 2013, after Snowden fled the country. The White House claims it is “not targeting and will not target the communications of Mr Hollande.” But it didn’t say they were not being targeted in 2012, nor that the phone calls of Hollande’s predecessors hadn't been targeted as well.

This sort of grinning posturing is simply pathetic. The U.S. must now acknowledge the size of the problem, admit it is a threat to democracy and freedoms and repair the huge damage these revelations have caused to their relationships with their allies.

They need to overhaul the hierarchies that guide cooperation with their different Western intelligence agencies, be it those in other English-speaking countries, in Germany or in France. A good way to start this evaluation would be to apologize to the targeted countries, something which in the two years since the Snowden revelations began has yet to happen.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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