Archive for the ‘surveillance’ Category

Update 00:30 : fixed an erroneous statement about the “special court”.

See also: part one ; demonstrations.

All references below are in Swedish, so you may want to use Google Translate. There’s an enormous amount of information available in Swedish blogs and other media, but not so much translated material. Nikke Lindqvist has gathered links to some English resources, in particular a video published shortly after the recent demonstrations against FRA.

Ignorant government

After a long fight, and countless scandals, the Swedish government is now presenting ideas for how the already approved wiretapping law (commonly called the “FRA law”, referring to the government agency which would do the work) can be “fixed” to meet certain criticism.

This package is being presented by some as a “new law”, but it seems naive at best to expect that the fundamental errors of design can be overcome like this. I’m not sure who should be more worried about their innocent activities – Swedes, or people abroad who (knowingly or not) risk having their traffic (e-mail, phone calls, …) intercepted by FRA (that could involve a lot of countries…).

Not too long ago, though, our Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt claimed that critics didn’t understand the law (see DN and SvD), and that “everybody will benefit if the debate stops”, and not to forget the – ahem – “differences of opinion” that he had with a member of his own party. And yet here we are, with last-minute proposals being presented again. To top it off, he now says that they have “learned to listen”. How can I possibly respond to such eloquence?

Abuse seems inevitable

There are nevertheless fundamental problems which I would suspect will remain, judging by how the government has operated so far. Let me point at some of them. Firstly, FRA or another government agency may get direct access to cable-bound communication, and we’re supposed to trust that they will follow rules or not abuse this (see Henrik Alexandersson’s blog entries: 1, 2). It is not yet clear how (if at all) this will change under the new proposal.

Secondly, FRA has its own regulations for what personal data can be stored (religious and political beliefs, among other things), and they seem rather interested in mapping social interactions on a massive scale. Olof Bjarnason has a nice visualization of the “sociogram”.

Finally, there’s nothing to stop a government from redefining the purpose of available tools – this may already be under way with millions of Swedish blood samples which were obtained solely for research. (See the editorial in Expressen.) I don’t think it hurts to be a little paranoid here…

The quicker, the better?

Apparently we are to believe that the “new law” meets all standards now due to the – yet to be detailed publicly – suggested changes, but since we have already discussed the “old law”, there’s no need to prolong the discussion, right? In other words: “the law is perfect, but we’ll make it better since you insist”.

Is this a responsible way to handle legislation? I found that a Member of Parliament, Alice Åström from the Left Party, summarized it quite well:

“Flera av de förbättringar som nu diskuteras går i rätt rikning, men oavsett vilka förbättringar som regeringspartierna kommer överens om kan vi inte ha en ordning där så här viktiga lagar förhandlas i sista minuten och bakom låsta dörrar. Detta trodde jag att vi var överens om över partigränserna efter integritetsutredningens slutbetänkande […] De borgerliga kritikerna av FRA-lagen sviker nu ännu en gång. Det enda rimliga förfarandet hade varit att tillsätta en parlamentarisk kommitté och börja om från början.”

Rough translation:

“Several of the improvements which were discussed yesterday are a step in the right direction, but regardless of which improvements the governing parties agree on, we cannot have an order where such important laws are negotiated in the last minute and behind closed doors. I thought we had agreed over party lines about this after the final consideration of the Commission of Inquiry on Integrity […] The non-socialist critics of the FRA law now let us down once more. The only reasonable approach would have been to call for a parliamentary committee and start over.”

That said, it’s not yet clear what various critics will do, but it is worrying, especially considering that six of the people in question made a recent public commitment to tear up the law and start from scratch.

Politicians, wake up!

The size of this mess is increasing by the day, and there’s a significant risk that politicians will once again vote for a law which they don’t understand – or worse, vote against their beliefs. One difference this time is that they can’t claim it will be “fixed later” (not that there was much room for that in June, but some did anyhow after voting for it).

There are also talks about a “special court” which would grant permissions for wiretapping, supposedly on a case-by-case basis; it’s still unclear what is meant more specifically, a wording that has been used is “trafikstråk” – which I guess translates to something like “communication stream”. Considering the timing of this proposal, I’d say one has to love this level of creativity… Present the whole proposal first if you please, then we’ll talk.

Then again, why don’t we rewrite the whole Swedish constitution while we’re at it? One week should be enough time to review it… Then we wait a few years, and rubber-stamp the changes. Any takers?

I hope that enough politicians will wake up and put things into perspective, but if the Social Democrats are willing to deal this time, we can expect that the law is put into force, with more or less cosmetic changes. We’ll find out soon enough if anyone will keep their word…

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Preparing for the marchI’m posting some thumbnails of pictures I took of a demonstration in Stockholm on Tuesday, coinciding with the opening of the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) after the summer. It was cold and cloudy; moreover the event lasted the whole day (similar demonstrations also occurred in Göteborg (Gothenburg) and Malmö), so these things may have contributed to there being hundreds of people instead of thousands.

Marching from Norrmalmstorg to Sergels torgNevertheless it was in a good spirit and this is just a part of the resistance, if you will, and it was quite impressive to see basically the whole political spectrum speak out against FRA and the plans for mass surveillance.

Sergels torgAlso, several Members of Parliament – who previously did not participate in the vote, or abstained on the ballot – now pledged to revoke the law and start from scratch. If the vote would have been today, we would expect that the law would not pass.

Sergels torgInside sources claim that the Prime Minister (Fredrik Reinfeldt) has ordered his party not to speak about the law, and if they must do so, speak only in technical terms. Also, the original proposal from the government has been followed by only a minimum (actually, barely any) amount of time for organizations to react, and it seems they will try to do the same thing again when they present a revised (read: cosmetically changed) proposal. Despite this there was harsh criticism from many instances, which the government ignored. The debates have been pretty much for show, as far as the government is concerned.

Sergels torgThe way the government acted could be conflicting with the Swedish constitution, and investigations are now being called for. Despite the attempts to avoid a debate, this issue is not going away. Soon, there may also be a motion which tears apart the law. If it gets carried, we can expect a significant crisis within the government. It’s time for them, and the people, to wake up and see the flood of surveillance proposals threatening the very values that the governing parties claim to believe in.

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One would think that the so-called Patriot Act, or the secret wiretapping leaves things to wish for in the US. In any case – given this and similar concepts around the world – Sweden seems to have felt left out (what do I know), so Ingvar Åkesson helped to write a law for giving FRA – where he is now director-general – quite arrogant powers.

Who benefits?

Isn’t it great that a government agency (a civilian one, but controlled by the Ministry of Defence) in effect can write its own laws? Not that they will necessarily follow them, but it will help them to get what they want.

The issue of wiretapping has been brewing for some time, though it seems most of the attention only came about shortly before the vote, and the proposal was accepted by the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) in June this year by a narrow margin. It is likely that it would have been rejected, but in a tactical swoop a number of last-minute amendments were made based on previously discarded comments from several critics.

It has become quite a political circus (there have also been some other – rejected – surveillance proposals lately, not related to FRA). If unchallenged, it will take effect Jan 1, 2009.

The proposal will certainly have an impact on how Internet and other electronic communication is structured in the area, and some operators are already suggesting to re-route traffic to exclude Swedish territory. This, however, is not the primary focus of the debate – Swedish residents will be directly affected as well.

Two votes short of rejection

Originally the Social Democrats, who have been in power for a long time in various constellations, were pushing for the idea some years ago. Now with the Moderate Party pretty much in charge it got voted through. This time, the Social Democrats opposed it (easy way to win political points, I would say).

There seems to have been intense activity within all parties, but in the end only two people from one of the ruling parties dared to go against the government’s line. Two more and the proposal would have been dead.

Deny everything

As of now the government seems to be doing its best at denying that there is any problem with the new law – despite harsh criticism, including that from several powerful Swedish government agencies and other organisations. The Prime Minister (Fredrik Reinfeldt) has even gone so far as to say that critics “do not understand” the law, while key people of the government seem to be quite good at confusing things themselves even concerning quite basic matters.

Part of the debate is about what the law actually says; it may be written in Swedish but it seems that FRA added some sort of legalese encryption if you will. However, many bloggers have helped to establish what it is really about, and what the technical implications are. The facts are becoming clearer every day, but the government is still trying to avoid facing them.

As of today FRA – among other tasks – listens to radio traffic etc. looking for foreign threats. The argument goes that the interesting data is now mostly on cables used for telecom, and that FRA should be able to listen to that as well.

It has been claimed that Swedes would not be affected as domestic traffic would be filtered out – and even so, that “keywords” would be used to avoid too broad surveillance (except proponents are trying even to avoid the term surveillance, instead referring to more politically correct constructions like “signals intelligence” or “anti-terror”).

Well, many of these arguments have been debunked and proven to be deceptive or even outright falsities. If the truth about this proposal was acknowledged, I don’t think it would survive long. As for the government, they should expect significant repercussions either way.


However, it’s not over yet. There is a lot of activity going on: demonstrations, political meetings, hearings, etc. etc. Several movements have been created against the law.

Yesterday for instance, by initiative of a member of the Liberal Party, the public was invited to a local political meeting. It was announced on a blog, and guess what – about 20 people showed up (excluding 10 or so regulars) with less than a day’s notice to listen and discuss FRA. We had a great time, and I look forward to more actions like this. Quite frankly, today’s politics may not survive without it.

Birgitta Ohlsson – member of the Riksdag – was there, as was a top government official (Håkan Jonsson, representing himself at the meeting). The official did not convince me, but he clarified some things and his presence allowed for a dialogue on the matter which was appreciated. Sadly, such things seem rare in the government circles right now.

Maybe they hope to win this battle, but they may very well lose the next election over it if they remain steadfast. (That said, I’m sure it will also raise many questions if the government finally backs down on the issue.)

What’s wrong with the reverse gear?

Among other things, I learned at the meeting that the inner workings of the Riksdag is somewhat more complicated than one would think. For instance, it does not seem to be possible to revert the decision without writing a – similarly extensive – new law to override the first one, which will require significant juridical manpower.

As it’s quite late in the process, and the government is not cooperating, the parties may have to look to their own resources to resolve this. (The government itself can certainly do the legwork, but it seems they will only do so if they have no other choice, meaning someone else may have to do the legwork first…)

So, guess which may be the only party with these capabilities? The Social Democrats. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if they are truly interested in tearing up this proposal, but it worries me that they seem to have a monopoly here, and who knows what kind of deals will be made.

The clock is ticking

As of today, several members of the Riksdag from the governing parties have took a stand against the law, so it seems likely that it will be hard to keep it as-is, if a motion to drop the legislation can be formed in time. But how much change is necessary to please the dissenters? Some argue there is no longer a sane way to achieve a reasonable compromise given the time constraints, so will there be enough pressure to drop the legislation altogether?

There were some other possibilities mentioned, such as delaying the enforcement of the legislation subject to a parliamentary inquiry, which seems possible but still may require great efforts to get enough parties and members of the Riksdag together in a common motion. Currently there are a number of efforts to divert attention, so the trickery is far from over. Time is running out, and it seems the battle may well end in September (any motions must be available early in October).

Note, however, that the Social Democrats do not want the issue to be pending too long, in case the next election favours them and they have to sit through it again. Who knows what they will do in the end, or if all parties will manage to cooperate well enough.

All in all, there is still hope, but we can expect a rather messy development during the coming months. Book writers, rejoice!


(Rather limited, sorry. Hint: Google Translate supports Swedish texts; most things should be readable.)

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