Swedish government may soon get power to spy on its citizens

A controversial surveillance law in Sweden, one that would broadly expose phone and Internet traffic to scrutiny by the government, is moving towards another vote this week and could go into full effect in January 2009. Critics of the bill fear that there is little that can be done to stop its passage at this late stage.

The bill dates back to 2005, when it was emphatically rejected by the government and widely condemned as excessively invasive. An official opinion issued by the Swedish Research Council in October 2005 stated that casting such a wide surveillance net would compromise citizen privacy without providing much benefit to the law enforcement community. "One danger with such a broad surveillance program as the proposed one is it can hurt law-abiding citizens more than criminals who know the art of not leaving tracks behind," the council wrote. "In that case, the surveillance may diminish the public trust in electronic communication."

After its initial rejection, the bill lay dormant until political leadership changed following a 2006 election. It was revived by a new defense minister and passed in June 2007 with majority support in a vote that was split along party lines. Implementation was delayed for year in order to facilitate review, and a second vote is now approaching quickly.

A noted critic of the bill is Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge, who claims to have evidence that suggests that the Swedish government already has a surveillance program of this nature in active use in defiance of the country's constitution. The new bill, he says, is being sought because it legalizes ongoing surveillance activity that is being conducted without authorization. This conclusion is drawn from statements made by a former intelligence director of the Swedish National Defense Radio Establishment agency. Falkvinge argues that the agency's alleged past and ongoing abuses demonstrate that the government cannot be trusted with expanded surveillance powers.

Falkvinge has also identified several other key problems and misleading aspects of the bill. The government claims that the function of the surveillance program is principally to track e-mails and phone conversations that are crossing Sweden's borders, and that it won't encourage widespread domestic surveillance. Falkvinge explains that the government's characterization of the program neglects to account for the fact that virtually all Internet traffic originating in Sweden will end up crossing the country's borders.

"E-mail and telephone calls take the shortest route from a topological view, which is never the same as how the bird flies," Falkvinge wrote in a blog entry. "Practically all mobile phones are bounced across the country borders for tariff regulation reasons, and anything on the Internet... well, let me put it this way: a guy in Sweden just tested what the route was between two of his rooms in the same apartment (which had different service providers), and the closest route went through Spain. While technically all traffic will not be wiretapped, it's the lion's share and close enough to all."

Falkvinge believes that the upcoming vote on whether to finally implement the bill will closely mirror the 2007 vote, in which it received majority support. If that is the case, then the Swedish government could soon be (legally) listening in on much of its population.

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