This is not about programming. It’s about something that actually matters.
There’s been a little media coverage recently about a Swedish law that’s been in the works for a while. (The Register, Slashdot on The Register, The Local Edit: and IDG/PCWorld, European Digital Rights, Ars Technica; new portal site in Swedish). The law will permit the National Defense Radio Establishment (FRA, Försvarets radioanstalt) to carry out surveillance over the air and in cables crossing the Swedish border.
Surveillance over the air has been carried out since the 1940s, and satellite surveillance since 1976. This has been unconstitutional since 1995, when the European Convention on Human Rights was adopted as part of the Swedish constitution. The former second-in-command of FRA, Anders Wik, admitted this in a tape recording made public last saturday. This has received almost no attention in the Swedish press. Creating a law that permits the activity will make it legal under the EHCR¹.
The law was originally drafted by the Social Democratic Party, but withdrawn because it “received an unfortunate amount of attention”. It was reintroduced by the current four-party alliance in late 2006 (with a quick consultation carried out in the week between Christmas and New Year), but was suspended for one year by a rare minority veto instigated by the Social Democrats, who suddenly felt it should be adjusted to provide more checks and balances.
Defenders of the new law point out that it specifies that “military intelligence activity” [försvarsunderrättelseverksamhet] may only target “foreign matters” [utrikes förhållanden]. That restriction is actually already in place. However, it is the stated legal opinion of FRA that when they work for non-military authorities, such as the police, the customs office or the tax board, this is not “military intelligence activity” and is therefore not restricted to “foreign matters”. Besides that, determining that, for instance, an e-mail message is to or from a Swede involves analyzing it; as pointed out by the Council on Legislation, personal integrity is violated by opening the envelope, not just by copying the contents.
The obvious problem with this type of legislation is that it can easily be abused, especially when it’s written in very broad terms. However, there is another problem: even if it never is abused, the very existence of surveillance is oppressive and changes people’s patterns of communication.
A recent survey from Germany shows that a large portion of the population has changed or under certain circumstances would change their behaviour due to Germany’s implementation of the data retention directive. This “only” involves storing information about the participants in communication and their location. A law that allows essentially arbitrary civil authorities to order searches of the contents of people’s communication can be reasonably expected to affect behaviour more extensively. As such, citizens’ freedom of expression is curtailed. Without a functioning freedom of expression, democracy means nothing.
The proposed law is not a technical adjustment of foreign intelligence activity, as its defenders wish us to believe. It is a direct assault on democracy itself. It is expected to pass with a seven-vote majority eleven days from now, unless we can once again raise an “unfortunate amount of attention.”
Footnote: I know that we’re already being spied on by foreign agencies, but that’s less important. Foreign governments are not in a position to oppress us, except by taking over the government of Sweden. This is reflected by the Swedish bill of rights, which in several cases protects² the citizen “in his relations with the public institutions” [gentemot det allmänna].
¹ If you accept that it is “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
² Sort of. Except for the EHCR, the Swedish constitution is not enforceable.