Sweden has a fairly good reputation around the world as a good place to live. However, this reputation comes from a previous era, and in a series of articles, I will point out how things have changed in recent years. Today: did you know that Sweden’s security authority FRA wiretaps all of Sweden’s population, all of the time?
In 2008, there was a huge battle for civil liberties in Sweden that shook the administration to its core, but in the end, the administration won and the civil liberties activists – from all colors of the political spectrum – lost. The battle concerned the so-called “FRA law”, named from the security agency that it concerned, the Försvarets Radioanstalt (FRA).
As a background, the FRA had used a loophole in the law since 1976 that allowed it (maybe) to wiretap all phonecalls that were routed over satellites, by erecting their own receiver dishes next to the telco ones. This allowed them to receive all the satellite signals, in identical copies to what the intended receiver dish did. The law they used to justify this behavior was one that said that privacy cannot be expected over radio waves, and that anybody may listen to anything sent over radio – which makes sense with shortwave-type radio amateur equipment, but not necessarily with satellite links: when you pick up the phone, you expect privacy, regardless of the technical route of the phonecall.
Anyway. Fiber optics in the ground gradually replaced satellites as the preferred method of transmission, and the FRA complained to the administrative departments that it had lost its ability to wiretap, and wanted an amendment to the law that would – in their own words – just “compensate for technical developments”. What they asked for was a requirement for every owner of fiberoptics crossing the border to send a mandatory realtime traffic copy to the FRA. They demanded to wiretap everybody, all the time, if your phonecall or internet traffic happened to cross one of these checkpoints (which you can’t tell if it does or not).
So the FRA went from “using a possible loophole in the law to eavesdrop on satellites” to “demanding exactly everything all the time”. This was a little bit more than just an update for technical progress; this was a huge difference in scale and a near-complete abolition of the right to privacy.
There was one hell of a political fight, as the ruling coalition had a very narrow majority in the Swedish parliament. There were full-page ads in the largest newspapers asking for four heroes in parliament that would say no to the general wiretapping law, which would cause the law to fall.
As we were out on the streets protesting this law, we would read aloud from the proposed text of the bill, and people would not believe us; they thought we were making it up and flat out denied that such a law could be passed in Sweden. That was one of the most frustrating times I’ve had in my time as an activist. We had to fight uphill for well over a year before media woke up to the fact that their right to protect their sources was about to be abolished at the stroke of a pen.
On the day of the vote, June 18, 2008, the parliament building was positively surrounded by newly-minted activists – people from all corners of society. The police had formed human chains to make way for the MPs to enter the building. No protest like it had been seen in Sweden in modern times. But after a really depressing negotiation theater in parliament, which had obviously been rehearsed, the law passed in a vote on the floor. Only one person in the ruling coalition voted against it (and she, Camilla Lindberg, got thousands of bouquets of flowers the next day).
But alas, the law passed, with some cosmetic changes that didn’t change the underlying fact: at any time, and for no other cause than it wanting to do so, the Swedish Government can and will wiretap all your communications. They do so in bulk, and are restricted – if that is the appropriate word – to wiretapping no more than about two million households at a time.
The words from 1984 spring to mind:
There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Government plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every communication you made was overheard.
This is also the legal definition. If you can’t tell hard criteria for whether or not you’re being wiretapped, you are indeed wiretapped all the time, from a legal standpoint.