Norway’s emergence as a wealthy country, with one of the biggest and most powerful investment funds in the world, is being cited as one of the reasons that spies are targeting Norwegian government and business leaders. More reports on Monday of advanced spying equipment detected in and around Oslo puts Norway on the list of countries elsewhere that long have been subject to such espionage attempts.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that high-tech and likely illegal surveillance devices aimed at tapping into mobile telephones had been detected all around Norway’s center of government power in downtown Oslo. Signals from false base stations known as “IMSI-catchers, -grabbers” or “stingrays” are believed to have been placed near the Office of the Prime Minister, various other government ministries, the Parliament and the area around Parkveien where the Royal Palace, the prime minister’s residence and many embassies are located.
On Monday Aftenposten followed up with reports that additional spying equipment was detected around the waterfront commercial and residential complexes of Aker Brygge and Tjuvholmen, which house a large concentration of financial and law firms along with expensive condominiums used by some of the country’s wealthiest individuals. More equipment aimed at plucking up mobile phone conversations, text messages and Internet activity was found at Lysaker, another business and financial center just west of Oslo.
Interestingly, Aftenposten failed to detect suspicious signals of spying activity (which its reporters have been tracking for months with the help of encrypted phones and security experts) at Fornebu, an area farther west of Lysaker that’s home to such major companies as Aker Solutions, Telenor and Statoil, the latter two of which are state-controlled. There was no explanation as to why Statoil and Telenor, for example, seemed to escape espionage attemtps, except that signals emitted by the false base stations are intermittent at best and wouldn’t be picked up if the equipment was turned off.
Upset and embarrassed
Politicians and business leaders were predictably upset that their mobile phones appear to have been under surveillance, and state security authorities were being harshly criticized for being “too passive.” Both police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) and the national security authority NSM (Nasjonal sikkerhetsmyndighet) were accused of having failed to do their jobs. One top politician said it was “embarrassing” that journalists at a newspaper had detected spying equipment that neither PST nor NSM claimed to have been aware of, and demands were made that both national security organizations launch a search to track down illegal devices and find out who’s been placing them around town.
Several security experts, however, and even Aftenposten itself suggest that’s a very difficult if not impossible job. The equipment is small, can be mounted anywhere (most likely in a window sill of private property) and can be removed as quickly as it was set up. The equipment is as mobile as the phones it seeks to tap into, and “it would demand a lot of resources to discover it,” security expert Morten Irgens, chairman of Norsk senter for informasjonssikring, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday.
Norway a natural target
Irgens is among those who are not at all surprised that such advanced spying equipment has been detected in Norway. He, like the politicial and business leaders who may have fallen victim to the spies, would nonetheless like to see more emphasis in Norway on security of information technology. “Norway should strengthen central authorities like NSM … and boost the police’s competence,” Irgens told DN.
Norway, he and others note, “is a rich and high-tech society” and therefore a natural target for espionge. Ståle Ulriksen, a researcher specializing in security policy at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, agreed. Norwegians often have a tendency to view Norway as “just a little land” and downplay its role in the world, but that can be dangerous.
“There is no reason to be so naive,” Ulriksen told newspaper Dagsavisen. “The oil fund (Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund) is one of the largest investment funds in the world. In maritime terms, we are among the 10-20 biggest players. And just look at the country’s activity in oil, gas and fishing.” Norway is part of NATO but outside the EU, which also puts it in a unique position, as does its prominent position in the Arctic, its abundant natural resources and shared border with Russia.
Rounding up the suspects
Much of its offshore and financial activity is steered from the areas where Aftenposten’s reporters picked up suspicious signs of mobile phone surveillance. Espionage, after declining from the years of the first Cold War, according to Ulriksen, has “become gradually worse” during the past 12 to 15 years, “in line with the (resurgent) growth of China and Russia.” And now a new Cold War has seemed to take hold just during the past year. Both China and Russia have been repeatedly identified as having the resources and interest in spying on Norway, while the US recently shocked its allies including Norway after reports of its own spying and mobile phone surveillance.
Norway’s PST was battered by criticism over the weekend for allegedly being too passive in not rushing out to round up the equipment and trying to identify those behind it, but there may be a reason for that. In addition to the difficult task of actually locating the suspect equipment, some commentators contend it can’t be ruled out that PST has indeed been aware of the false base stations detected by Aftenposten but sounded no alarms. Perhaps, it’s been suggested, the surveillance equipment has been placed by one of Norway’s allies, and therefore not viewed by PST as a threat to national security. It’s not believed the equipment was placed by Norwegian authorities themselves.
Given the indications of the high-tech spying going on in Oslo, experts suspect it’s also likely going on elsewhere in Norway, from the oil capital of Stavanger to the Arctic capital of Tromsø, as it has in other countries like the US itself for years. Ulriksen of NUPI said he thinks Norwegians, however, continue to be more careless with information than many others. He warned against thinking that Norway “is so small that we’re not interesting for foreign powers or strong economic interests.” As Irgens told DN, “we are under constant surveillance.”