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Sweden to vote on far-reaching wiretapping law

by Pia Ohlin*

Swedish lawmakers vote tomorrow on a far-reaching wiretapping law to defend against foreign threats by monitoring all emails and phone calls, a plan opponents say will create a "big brother" state.
The vote is expected to be very close as the centre-right government holds a slim four-seat majority in the parliament, and the plan has drawn fierce objections as as an attack on civil liberties.
The new legislation would enable the National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) — a civilian agency despite its name — to tap all cross-border Internet and telephone communication.
Under the current law, FRA, which cracked Nazi codes during World War II and was Sweden's ear on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is only allowed to monitor military radio communications.
The Defence Ministry, which hammered out the proposal, insists that the new legislation is necessary in today's changed world, where communications are increasingly transmitted through fiberoptic cables and not through the ether.
Critics, including the opposition Social Democratic, Left and Green parties as well as journalists, lawyers and even the former head of the Swedish intelligence agency Saepo, argue that the proposed legislation does not go far enough in safeguarding individual rights.
"The proposal lacks a framework for what information can be collected or to whom the information can be given. If I get caught in their net I won't know, and there is no compensation for the fact that the state has violated" my civil liberties, a member of the Centre Party, Fredrick Federley, told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, adding that he had yet to decide whether he dared to vote against the party line.
Another coalition MP, Birgitta Ohlsson of the Liberal Party, has already declared that she is opposed to the bill and will be absent on the day of the vote so as to avoid voting against her own party line.
FRA would only be permitted to tap into communications through pattern analysis and key word searches, and would not be entitled to target specific individuals.
Unlike police, FRA would not be required to seek a court order to begin surveillance.
A parliamentary committee on military intelligence affairs would however have to give the green light, and an independent agency with at least two judges on its board would decide which key word searches could be carried out.
The proposal also calls for the creation within FRA of a special board to protect individuals' integrity.
But some say that is not enough.
"I'm sure there will be wiretapping scandals in the future because the cornerstones of the legislation are so weak. Innocent people will be monitored," former Social Democratic justice minister Thomas Bodstroem told Dagens Nyheter.
An independent network of organisations and people opposed to the law, Stoppa FRA-lagen (Stop the FRA Law), has also warned of the implications, calling the legislation "a threat to our open and free society" in a full-page advertisement in Dagens Nyheter last week.
"No court is involved. You don't have to be suspected of a crime. Everyone is treated as a suspect," the ad read.
The proposal was first presented to parliament a year ago, but the Social Democrats exercised their right to freeze it for a year to allow for a period of reflection.
However, the bill now being presented to parliament is unchanged and there has been little debate on the subject in the past year.
When it was presented in 2007, Saepo's chief legal counsel Lars-Aake Johansson said the proposal was "completely foreign to our form of government."
And Anne Ramberg, the head of the Swedish Bar Association, said: "If the proposal is adopted, we are going to be among the most advanced in monitoring our citizens, the US included."
According to the National Post and Telecom Agency, the proposed surveillance would require an initial investment of between half a billion to a billion kronor (82-164 million dollars, 53-107 million euros), as well as annual operating costs of 100 to 200 million kronor.
The bill would be footed by telecom operators, the agency said.
If adopted, the legislation would go into effect on January 1, 2009.