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I. Decryption at the Request of Intelligence and Security Services

French law authorizes national intelligence and security services to intercept and read private communications for specifically enumerated purposes, including protecting national security, protecting the “safety of essential elements of France’s economic and scientific potential,” preventing acts of terrorism, repressing organized crime, or preventing the reconstitution of illegal groups (such as banned hate groups or private paramilitary groups). [1]

Such interceptions must be authorized in writing by the Prime Minister or someone specifically and directly chosen by him/her for that purpose, upon the written request of the Defense Minister, the Minister of the Interior, or the minister in charge of customs and border security. [2]

Agents duly authorized to intercept electronic communications for intelligence purposes may request from providers of cryptology services the means to decipher their codes.[3] This refers not just to encryption keys, but also to any software or other information that would allow the encrypted data to be read.[4] A cryptology service provider must submit to the request within seventy-two hours.[5] Furthermore, a cryptology service provider may be required to apply the means of decryption him/herself within that same timeframe, unless he/she can demonstrate an inability to do so. [6]

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II. Decryption at the Request of Judicial and Law Enforcement Agencies

If certain conditions are met, an investigative judge (juge d’instruction) may order the interception, recording, and transcription of private telecommunications for the purposes of a criminal investigation.[7] In certain circumstances, telecommunications interception, recording, and transcription may also be ordered by a juge des libertés et de la detention (a judge who specializes in determining whether a suspect should be placed in police custody).[8]

When intercepted information is password protected or encrypted, law enforcement authorities may ask any qualified person or corporation to perform the technical operations that would allow access to this information.[9] This requires authorization from the investigative judge, the public prosecutor (procureur de la République), or the court that has jurisdiction over the crime being investigated. [10] The Code of Criminal Procedure also provides that law enforcement authorities can request the help of a “Technical Support Center,” which was created in 2002 under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior (the ministry in charge of law enforcement in France).[11] Details on this “Technical Support Center” are classified, [12] but it appears to specialize in data decryption.[13]

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Prepared by Nicolas Boring
Foreign Law Specialist
May 2016


[5] Id. art. L871-1.

[6] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Décret n°2002-1073 du 7 août 2002 d’application de l’article 30 de la loi n° 2001-1062 du 15 novembre 2001 relative à la sécurité quotidienne et portant création du centre technique d’assistance [Decree No. 2002-1073 of August 7, 2002, Applying Article 30 of Law No. 2001-1062 of November 2001 Regarding Everyday Security and Creating the Technical Support Center] (as amended on May 9, 2014), http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte. do;jsessionid=D3D3BF1F4D47E24B7C9D0FB4B55005AC.tpdjo06v_2?cidTexte=LEGITEXT000005633260&dateTexte=
20150127
, archived at https://perma.cc/H8C6-RNNP.

[12] Id.

[13] Circulaire relative au fonctionnement du centre technique d’assistance (C.T.A.) [Circular Regarding the Functioning of the Technical Support Center (C.T.A.)], Ministère de l’intérieur, de la sécurité intérieure et des libertés locales [Ministry of the Interior, of Interior Security, and of Local Freedoms] (Mar. 27, 2003), http://www.interieur.gouv.fr/content/download/8005/75906/file/INTC0300032C.pdf , archived at https://perma.cc/E4Z8-65NX.

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Last Updated: 10/01/2016