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Defence Minister: 'FRA doesn’t monitor individual Swedes'

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11:35 CEST+02:00
In explaining the importance of Sweden's new surveillance law, Minister of Defence Sten Tolgfors argues that signals intelligence activities on cable-bound communications is no greater an invasion of privacy than monitoring the airwaves.

Intelligence activities and signals intelligence are of great importance to the country’s security. Because of the nature of the intelligence business, it is guarded – and must be guarded – with secrecy.

Those who wish to threaten Sweden must not know what we can do or how we do it. A part of being responsible for safeguarding the country requires not saying too much about Swedish capabilities or behaviour.

At the same time, interest from the media and the general public in the aims and accomplishments of intelligence activities is justified.

Therefore, it’s a good thing that FRA (Försvarets Radioanstalt – the National Defence Radio Establishment) has commented on a number of concrete examples which demonstrate how its activities have benefitted Sweden.

These cases thus counter claims by opponents of the new signals intelligence law who see no benefit from FRA’s activities.

Svenska Dagbladet has given examples of how signals intelligence has helped stop political attacks in Sweden; how potentially serious political situations were avoided when information was brought to light which obviated claims by a foreign power about the shooting down of a Swedish plane; and on how the true nature of different parties’ actions in wartime could be ascertained and thus serve as the basis for asylum policies.

We must be able to uncover, understand, and protect Sweden against modernity’s wider range of threats. These include not only military confrontations, but also terrorist threats, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, IT-attacks, and threats against Swedes serving on international missions.

Threats often emerge from failed states and regional conflicts; they come from both state and non-state actors and the aims – what people want to achieve – can vary.

The information gathered through signals intelligence is needed in order to judge and meet external threats against Sweden, as well as to provide a basis for foreign, security, and defence policies.

As the examples show, these activities do not involve monitoring the communications of individual Swedes, but rather of states and organizations with interests that threaten Sweden.

An individual in Sweden would only be subjected to FRA’s signals intelligence activities if he or she had a direct connection to an external threat against the country, such as international terrorism or another state’s actions against Sweden.

FRA uses very advanced search terms intended to find exactly what it is looking for with respect to external threats against the country.

Everything else is gets filtered out. The search terms aren’t created from words, but from technical variables.

The traffic not caught by the search terms passes through untouched and thus cannot be stored.

Currently, and for the foreseeable future, there is no military threat of a traditional sort directed toward Sweden. But we must be able to follow, uncover, and understand if that situation changes over time.

We should have the capacity to create an in-house Swedish perspective on issues of importance for foreign, security, and defence policies without being completely dependent on information other countries choose to give us. Therefore, we need our own intelligence capacities.

At the same time, Sweden must be able to exchange information with other countries with whom we jointly work to create security.

No country can have full access to information without sharing some of its own.

In addition, different countries are skilled at different things – gathering different types of information for the benefit of common security or about different regions of the world – and have different information to offer.

Afghanistan has, more than any other country, demonstrated that terror based far away can hit the western world hard. Clearly international connections to extremist groups in Afghanistan also exist today and their relevant communications occur in cable-bound traffic, which FRA is still not allowed to monitor today.

Signals intelligence is also an important measure for increasing security around the roughly 1,000 Swedes who are a part of international peace missions at any given time.

This has been confirmed by the likes of Armed Forces Supreme Commander Håkan Syrén and FRA’s director Ingvar Åkesson.

Understanding the threats we face requires a combination of tactical signals intelligence from airwaves in the country where the mission is taking place combined with strategic signals intelligence from wires, which provides information of a different character.

It’s not possible to have special laws and rules for signals intelligence from the airwaves and from cable-bound traffic.

When you lift the telephone receiver or a mobile phone here at home, the signal can, without your knowledge, travel both through the ether and via wires.

A call from a fixed telephone line can be connected via satellite to another country. A data network at home may be wireless, but then later the signal may travel in wires. In certain parts of the country, telephone signals first travel in part via radio links and then in wires.

Similarly, signals from our communications often travel across the country’s borders. It’s not unlikely that they travel via countries which themselves carry out signals intelligence activities both in the air and on cable-bound traffic.

The point of the argument is that it is neither more nor less of an invasion of privacy to have signals intelligence activities carried out in the air or on wires. In both cases, the same clear set of rules is required as well as the same privacy protections.

By saying no to the new signals intelligence law, one is saying yes to a return to an unregulated situation for signals intelligence from the airwaves, without any privacy protections.

By regulating signals intelligence with laws, we in the Alliance government are conforming Sweden’s intelligence service to current practice, strengthening privacy protections, and creating the ability to have independent information about the world.

As 95 percent of all communication over the border now travels in wires, monitoring the airwaves isn’t enough to protect Sweden against a broader set of threats. After all, Sweden needs to uncover and understand information consisting of more than simply military communications or communications between military units.

We are also looking for information about the desires and capacities of foreign actors. Furthermore, military information no longer only travels in the ether as it did previously, which made monitoring of the airwaves sufficient. Continuing to do so would result in information quite poorly suited for Swedish security.

According to some, advanced terrorist groups encrypt their communications. Obviously, many actors do and intelligence services in every country are aware of and prepared to deal with that reality.

The Riksdag decided in the middle of June to strengthen Sweden’s security through a new technology-neutral signals intelligence law. The law also includes a number of measures to strengthen privacy protections.

In the autumn, the government plans to return and present a proposition which includes measures to further protect privacy, as requested by the majority vote in the Riksdag.

By Sten Tolgfors, Minister of Defence

NOTE: This article was originally published in Swedish in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper on July 27th, 2008. English translation by The Local.

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