With protests against Sweden’s new surveillance law rising, the Justice Center (CFR) announced July 14 it would file a case against the legislation in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The bill permits the intelligence services to monitor telephone, e-mail and Internet communications that cross Sweden’s borders. It was voted into law late on June 18, after a short delay forced by rebels from the government parties. Earlier that day, the proposal was sent back to the parliamentary defence committee where a number of token concessions were attached to the bill, which was enough to convince those MPs to vote in favour. The measure passed by 143 votes to 138, with 1 abstention.
From the beginning of June, groups on social networking websites and other Internet sites began organising opposition to the wire-tapping law. With limited coverage in the print media, it was largely as a result of blog postings that the issue was highlighted.
On the day of the vote, groups of protestors gathered outside the Riksdag (parliament) to voice their opposition. Some handed out copies of George Orwell’s novel, 1984.
The days in the lead-up to the vote saw ongoing manoeuvring within the governing coalition—the Alliance made up of the Moderate, Liberal People’s, Christian Democratic and Centre parties—to convince their members to support the measure. A significant number of MPs, enough to tip the balance against the proposal in parliament, had expressed their intentions to vote against their own party to block the surveillance law. Karl Sigfrid, a Moderate Party member, expressed his concerns in an e-mail made public on the eve of the vote, stating, “Mass surveillance of Swedish citizens is a measure that is not proportionate to the problems Swedish authorities are expected to solve.”
Members of the smaller Centre Party voiced concerns, forcing minor concessions from the government. These included the appointing of an “independent committee” to observe the activities of FRA (the National Defence Radio Establishment—the Swedish state’s intelligence-gathering agency), as well as a civil liberties ombudsman to safeguard individuals’ privacy.
Such cosmetic changes were able to persuade enough MPs to support the measure, but the measures passed still represent a severe threat to democratic rights. The intelligence services will still be given carte blanche to intercept any communication that crosses Sweden’s borders without requiring a court order.
Swedish daily Expressen launched a protest letter on its website that readers could fill in and send to all parliamentarians who had voted against or abstained in the vote on the surveillance law. Just days after its launch, MPs had reportedly received 2 million e-mails, and by July 3, a total of 6 million had been sent. Sweden’s total population is around 9 million people.
Many within the youth organisations of the Alliance parties have subsequently voiced their disagreement with the law. Niklas Wickman, leader of the Moderate Party’s youth wing, threatened his resignation if the party refused to change its position.
Seeking to tap in to the popular rejection of the legislation, on June 25, Mona Sahlin, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, vowed that if she were in government following elections in 2010, the law would be repealed. Commenting to Sveriges Television, Sahlin said, “If it’s the proposal which was in the Riksdag, we’ll just tear it up and change the legislation.”
But far from a pledge to do away with the authoritarian measure, a social democratic government would merely “change the legislation” in a bid to make it more acceptable to public opinion. The bill that has now been passed into law originated under the previous government headed by the Social Democrats prior to the 2006 election. Confirming that the Social Democrats’ opposition was purely tactical, they released a joint statement on July 8 with the Greens calling for negotiations with the government on the law.
A similar message was conveyed in an article written by prominent members within the Liberal Party, critical of the government’s approach to the law. Interviewed following its publication, one of the article’s authors, Bengt Westerberg, claimed, “Everyone is in agreement that Sweden needs surveillance and that it should be regulated. But it is important that it doesn’t create unease among the public; it is therefore paramount that political support is as broad as possible.”
The government’s arguments are not helped by the past record of the FRA. On July 1, Säpo, the Swedish security police, announced it would launch an investigation into whether FRA illegally collected data on Swedes and their communications and then stored it for up to 10 years. The inquiry was sparked by the news that an FRA employee may have leaked confidential documents to the media.
Sections of business have also voiced their opposition to the law, as it compromises their and their customers’ security. Telia Sonera, the region’s biggest telecommunications company, as well as Google, claim that the law is the most intrusive in Europe, likening it to the domestic spying programme of the Bush administration. In April of this year, Telia Sonera moved its servers from Sweden to Finland in anticipation of the passage of the law, in order to safeguard against surveillance of its Finnish customers.
In spite of this action, concerns have been raised regarding the impact of the wire-tapping measures on Sweden’s neighbours. In the case of Finland, much of its communications with a third country is routed through Sweden, threatening it with interception since it would “cross Sweden’s borders.” According to Newsroom Finland, even some internal communications are bounced to Sweden and back.
Timo Lehtimäki, head of information security at the Finnish communications regulatory authority, questioned the efficacy of Sweden’s eavesdropping law, stating, “The volume of data is so enormous that it is rather like looking for a needle in a haystack. If somebody is plotting terrorist acts, it is likely they are able to hamper intelligence operations or even make them impossible with a range of encryption methods.”
Concerns about the impact on its communications prompted the Norwegian government to announce an investigation into the impact of Sweden’s new law on Norway. Elisabeth Sørbøe Aarsæther, of the Post and Telecommunications Authority, told AFP that the inquiry had been given “high priority.”
The new measures will also have an impact on Denmark. Roger Grönberg, CEO of Momail, a company that offers mobile access to e-mails, noted that an e-mail sent between two Danes would first be sent through Momail’s headquarters in Sweden. Having passed through Sweden’s borders, this communication would also be open to state surveillance. He continued, “Our customers’ communications are now going to be subject to surveillance regardless of the prevailing laws in their home countries.”
Clarence Crafoord from the Justice Centre, the organisation filing the case against the law to the ECHR, also had concerns on this issue. “The nature of the globalised communications market means that we never know the path our telephone calls make. And anyone using Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo knows for sure that their e-mails will cross Swedish borders as those companies’ servers are located in the US,” he said.
“We have had calls from a group like us in Belgium concerned over the impact this will have over citizens in Belgium. Two people in the UK, for example, could communicate with each other via Sweden. You never know.”
Responding to these criticisms, Prime Minister Frederick Reinfeldt refused to accept that the surveillance law would have such negative effects. “Apparently there is little knowledge about what defence intelligence work actually is,” he said. “It’s about foreign-related phenomena of a more diffuse type and isn’t tied to individuals.”
Notwithstanding these assurances, there are provisions within the bill that allow the state to target individuals. And by not requiring the intelligence services to obtain a court order to intercept communications, there is no way of preventing such targeting.
Supreme Commander of the armed forces Håken Syrén, justifying his support for the surveillance law, was suitably vague in his definition of who would be targeted: “When we face an opponent we need to know its capabilities and capacity. Intercepting communications is one means for us to ensure we can take reasonable risks.”
A report in the daily Svenska Dagbladet points to the possibility that one of the “opponents” the Swedish government is keen to monitor is Russia. The newspaper notes that all e-mails and telephone calls made from Russia pass through Sweden. Sources from the intelligence services are quoted suggesting that keeping track on Russia is the primary motive behind the new legislation. One source commented, “Our geographical position means that 80 percent of Russia’s contacts with large parts of the world travel through cables in Sweden. That is the core of the issue.
“The most important reason for the law is that the government, the Armed Forces and other agencies need intelligence about Russia.”
Given Sweden’s past record in collaboration with US imperialism, demonstrated recently with its involvement in a number of rendition cases, it is entirely possible that the law is part of a broader geopolitical strategy to step up surveillance on Russia on the part of the US and its allies. While no evidence has suggested direct involvement from the US in the implementation of the wire-tapping law, the similarity with legislation adopted by the Bush administration is clear. The ability to access vast amounts of information from Russia would be of great interest to the US government, regardless of who occupies the White House after November’s elections.
As Akesson, the head of FRA noted, Sweden would be quite willing to share such information with other states. “Often we have information that could also be of interest to other countries. If we then share it, we can get information in return that is of benefit to leading state figures in Sweden but that we have not managed to get hold of ourselves,” he told Dagens Nyheter.
In the context of growing conflicts over plans by the US to station missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, Sweden’s decision to exchange information with US imperialism would only further increase tensions with Russia.
Sweden’s adoption of such authoritarian measures also parallels plans in other European countries to increase state surveillance powers to tackle the supposed “terrorist threat.” In Britain, agencies including law enforcement and intelligence are permitted to intercept telephone conversations, mail and e-mails with the permission of the Home Secretary. Although the evidence is not permitted in court cases, the Brown government wants to enact legislation to allow the use of such evidence.
Plans are also under way for the German parliament to pass a law later in the year allowing some surveillance of telephones and e-mail traffic, although it is expected that court orders will be required. Given that Sweden has passed such sweeping measures, it is to be expected that some within German ruling circles will push for this safeguard to be removed.