PARIS - The revelations of the controversial U.S. domestic surveillance program PRISM have provoked massive indignation through much of Europe, but France has been rather quiet. There are two simple explanations: Paris was already aware -- and does exactly the same.
Le Monde has confirmed that the “Direction Générale de la Securité Extérieure” (DGSE, the French secret service) systematically collects the electromagnetic signals transmitted by computers and phones in France, as well as the digital streams going back-and-forth between the French and abroad. All communications are being spied on: emails, SMS messages, phone records, Facebook and Twitter updates, which are all then stored for years.
If this massive database was used only by the DGSE, which works only outside France’s borders, the practice would already be illegal. But the six others intelligence French services are also making daily use of the data they need, very discreetly, without any legal authorization or any type of serious control. Certain politicians are very much aware of what is done, but secrecy is the rule.
This French Big Brother, of course, is meant to be kept clandestine. However, its existence is mentioned briefly in parliamentary documents. The eight senators and members of Parliament who handle intelligence oversight note in their April 30 report that “since 2008, progress has been made in matters of mutualization of capacities, especially concerning electromagnetic originated intelligence …”.
The legislators even propose going further, to “reinforce the capacities exploited by the DGSE” and to “consolidate the access to other services to the mutualised capacities of the DGSE.”
Not the what, but the who
Intelligence services are not looking into the content of messages, but their source. It is more interesting to know who is talking to whom rather than collect what people actually say. It is the technical data, the metadata that is of more interest.
The DGSE collects the phone records of millions of subscribers, the identity of the caller and recipient, place, date, length, and size of the message. Same goes for emails (with the possibility of reading the subject of the message), SMSs, faxes… and more generally, any activity on the Internet that goes through Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo!...
This is what the parliamentary delegation calls the “renseignement d’origine electromagnetique” (ROEM), a perfect translation of the NSA’s Sigint (signal intelligence).
This metadata allows for the drawing of huge graphics that draw links between people based on their numeric activity, over the course of several years. One can thus establish a kind of intimate diary for anyone, culled from their phone or computer communications. Then, when a certain interesting subject has been identified, more intrusive techniques -- such as placing phone taps or monitoring their movements -- can be implemented.
This massive collection system is of course invaluable in matters of counter-terrorism. But it also allows for the spying on anybody, at anytime. The DGSE collects this way, billions of billions of data, which is then compressed and stored in three floors below its Paris headquarters. France's intelligence operations are among the five leaders in the world in matters of information technology capacity, behind the U.S., UK, Israel and China.
Bernard Barbier, the technical director of the DGSE since 2006, has spoken publicly two times about the existence of this surveillance program. “Today, our targets are the general public networks, because they are used by terrorists,” Barbier was quoted as saying in front of a group of military information specialists in 2010.
"A procedure like PRISM"
The system is completely illegal, but is utilized by a vast array of French intelligence and law enforcement services -- from local police departments to the customs and military intelligence services, and is dubbed the “mutualized infrastructure.”
According to the French Senate, 80% of the data collected by the DGSE is being used by other services. Each service then indicates a target to a contact in the DGSE who answers either “hit” or “no hit,” if the target is present in the database or not.
One of the directors of these services refers to the system as non-legal. “The legal regime of security interceptions forbids the actions of the Intelligence services, those resembling a procedure like PRISM," says a source at the CNIL (the French national commission of informational technology and freedom).
The CNIL can neither deny nor confirm the existence of this French system, and does not have access to the DGSE’s files.
Legal decisions have been made that relate only to specific security interceptions authorized by the Prime Minister, based on the legal notice of the national commission, but has not ruled on massive storage of technical data by the secret services. “For years we have been operating under a virtual authorization," says a former secret service chief. "And every agency is satisfied with the freedom permitted by the blurred legal regime surrounding the metadata.”
A member of Parliament confirms that “a large part of electronic connections in France are in fact, intercepted and stored by the DGSE”. However, officially “the mutualized infrastructure” does not exist.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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