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Personal privacy can never be taken for granted

Published: 30 Jul 2008 12:33 GMT+02:00
Updated: 30 Jul 2008 12:33 GMT+02:00

Jessica Rosencrantz of the Moderate Party youth organization explains why she and others in the group disagree with their mother party's stance on Sweden's new surveillance law.

Sweden’s new FRA-law represents a huge infringement on liberty and a slap in the face when it comes to personal privacy. In other situations those who call themselves liberals are usually strongly opposed to giving the state access to such powerful measures which can be used against private individuals.

The government’s position on this issue is therefore incomprehensible. Now people from the government’s side want to turn back critics by creating more controls and committees to keep tabs on the FRA-law’s application with respect to privacy. The government therefore has shown a deep misunderstanding of the critique.

The whole idea of being able to spy on Swedish citizens without any criminal suspicions is wrong in principle. A limitation of freedom of this size demands an active liberal opposition and therefore several representatives from the Moderate Party’s Youth Organization (Moderata Ungdomsförbundet – MUF) have chosen to speak out.

Some may find it odd that the youth organization takes a position on this issue so far from the Moderate Party. In most cases the Moderate Party and MUF share the same or at least very similar positions, but in certain instances our opinions diverge from one another. That is also quite appropriate. A youth organization should never go in lock-step with the mother party, but instead should be a forward-thinking and renewing force that dares to ask questions.

As the FRA issue matter affecting fundamental principles, liberals must clearly oppose it.

The FRA law entails Sweden walking away from a principle which otherwise is self evident in our system of justice: that bugging and surveillance of Swedish citizens must be preceded by criminal suspicions. To move away from this principle is a dangerous road down which to travel, as in the long run it can lead to inadequacies in the rule of law.

It may be, as FRA’s director Ingvar Åkesson claims, that the goal of the law isn’t that FRA will review Swedish citizens’ emails, text messages, and telephone calls. It may not be the goal, but the law gives FRA the tools to do it all the same.

It is an extreme limitation on freedom and a danger in and of itself. Therefore, we ought to tear up the FRA-decision and introduce a measure requiring criminals or a court order before allowing the agency to monitor cable-bound communications traffic.

Moreover, every system has its limits and no system is stronger than its weakest link. Every system leaks at some point, in some way, due to technical reasons or because of human factors.

At the end of the day, it’s about the human beings made of flesh and blood at FRA who will have access to information about Swedish citizens’ private correspondence and some day the temptation will become so great that the information will be misused. Because the information which FRA will be able to handle as a result of the new law is so sensitive, it would be a catastrophe if the information ever fell into the wrong hands.

One of the most important things to emphasize with regard to those who argue that the goal isn’t to monitor and spy on Swedish citizens is the risk for shifting goals. The logic in place at the start of something is rarely the same as at the end.

Today proponents of the FRA-law want to give the agency the tools to review Swedish citizens’ correspondence, but the tool will only be used to reveal external threats. Tomorrow, those same proponents will say that because the tools already exist, they might as well be used for domestic crime fighting.

After all, those who abide by the law have nothing to hide anyway, right?

Steadily we find ourselves raising our level of tolerance for monitoring by the state and we slowly forget that important questions of freedom and individual rights are at stake here.

Another troubling aspect of the FRA-law is the issue of whether the law will actually succeed in fulfilling its spoken aim – to arrest terrorists and identify external threats. FRA has also been drawn into the general surveillance hysteria which has dominated the western world following the increased concerns about terrorism that came after the attacks of September 11th.

If the technology exists to carry out surveillance, it ought to be used – or so the argument goes. That terrorists would discuss their plans and threats via text messages, email, and telephone calls, isn’t especially believable. The risk now is that we are now starting to create a large surveillance apparatus, without, when all is said and done, really getting that much out of it. In the process, we’re sacrificing our personal privacy for a goal which we can’t even reach.

In Sweden we’ve been spared from the sort of totalitarian regimes which so many other countries have suffered through and as a result we’ve never had a pressing need to reflect on how life feels when one can no longer freely walk down the street without feeling watched; when one can no longer make a phone call or send a text message or an email without expecting that someone is going to review what is said or written.

Put simply, we Swedes have never been forced to experience the feeling of having our privacy taken away from us. Therefore, it becomes too easy for us to only see the advantages for stopping criminality and terrorism that come with the proposal for more effective surveillance methods, and brush aside the resulting limitations to our personal freedom.

When it comes to FRA, we need to now tear up the decision and introduce a demand for criminal suspicions or a court order before wiretapping. It’s high time we put our foot down and state unequivocally that in a democratic and liberal state, protecting personal privacy must remain a top priority.

By Jessica Rosencrantz, Vice Chair of the Moderata Ungdomsförbundet (MUF) in Stockholm

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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