COMMENTARY: Eavesdropping bill sets Sweden apart from Finland
By Jukka Harju
Sweden's Minister of Defence Mikael Odenberg was compelled to explain to Finnish journalists on Thursday evening why Sweden wants to give its military intelligence service extensive authority to monitor telephone and e-mail traffic that crosses its border. The surveillance would also target Finns.
In the same connection Odenberg observed that Finland has practiced the same kind of communications surveillance for a much longer time.
He is correct. All sovereign states in the world do it.
And he is wrong. The uproar that resulted in Sweden over the eavesdropping, and the reactions in Finland reveal how differently Finland and Sweden have arranged this top-secret and mysterious official business that is familiar from spy novels. They also show how easily misunderstandings can arise.
Finland does not have an institution that would be equivalent to Försvarets radioanstalt (FRA), the communications surveillance organisation of the Swedish Defence Forces, which responds to requests from the country's armed forces, customs, or police.
The closest equivalent in Finland to the FRA in the Finnish Defence Forces is Viestikoelaitos, which is rarely mentioned in public.
It is easy to surmise that its antennas and radar are pointed especially to the east, from where it picks out radio transmissions.
The transmissions can reveal, for instance, movements of military units in that country, command hierarchies, and flight routes of military aircraft. It is part of preparation for military crises, which is part of the role of the Defence Forces, rather than fighting crime.
It is known as signal surveillance. It is not determined by any Finnish law, and no annual reports are made on it to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, as police are required to do for their own eavesdropping.
At the same time, on the other side of the border, antennas and radars are pointed in our direction. They catch the same data. It is in this way that states monitor each other across borders.
However, the thought that Viestikoelaitos would be given the same authority as Sweden's FRA is utopian, to say the least.
However, now Swedish military surveillance is being granted the right to monitor all cross-border electronic interaction between people. The most noteworthy part is that the activity will not require permission from any court.
It is a big change, and requires a considerable range of linguistic skills from those doing the listening.
What is noteworthy in the preparations for the proposed legislation is that even Swedish police are opposed to increasing the authority of FRA, because they feel that such a move would involve an encroachment on their territory. Traditionally, fighting crime and criminal surveillance are tasks for the police, which are under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior.
According to Finnish law, only police and customs authorities are entitled to listen in on conversations, when they are investigating an especially serious crime, and they need a court's permission for the surveillance.
A military organisation - the Technical Research Centre of the Finnish Defence Staff, cannot do so, as its authority is much more restricted.
Whereas the National Bureau of investigation can even use undercover officers to infiltrate criminal organisations, the military is restricted mainly to pointing a parabolic microphone at a person suspected of espionage, and to try to find out what the person is saying. It has even done so.
This one and only time caused the Parliamentary Ombudsman to make note that legislation on police tasks in the Defence Forces is not quite in order today.
The reason for this is that while the police have received plenty of new powers in recent years, their impact on the law on carrying out police tasks in the Defence Forces has not been examined. It was seen even in the Defence Forces that this law requires updating, so that nobody's fundamental rights are put in jeopardy.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.3.2007
JUKKA HARJU / Helsingin Sanomat