Norway’s police intelligence agency PST has dismissed reports in newspaper Aftenposten late last year that the paper had found false base stations used for mobile telephone surveillance in Oslo. The newspaper stands by its lengthy series of stories, however, and so do its sources.
The public is left to decide who is more credible: Aftenposten, which raised questions of who was behind the alleged spying, or PST, which is charged with cracking down on surveillance and threats against Norway but which also engages in surveillance itself.
‘No indications’ of illegal spying equipment
PST finally addressed the issues raised in Aftenposten’s series about the false base stations known as IMSI catchers. Aftenposten reported in December that the illegal spying equipment was located all over downtown, not least close to the Office of the Prime Minister, the Parliament, various embassies and in the heart of Norway’s financial and banking center.
In revealing the results of PST’s own investigation into Aftenposten’s findings, PST boss Benedicte Bjørnland pointed to many alleged inaccuracies in Aftenposten’s stories. She claimed Aftenposten didn’t find IMSI catchers but rather normal installations that confused Aftenposten’s electronic detection devices. “The conclusion of our investigations is that there were no indications of use of false base stations,” Bjørnland said at a press conference on Thursday.
Discredited the experts
PST also discredited the security experts that Aftenposten got help from to write its reports of mobile spying in the Norwegian capital. “Those who have conducted the registration and analysis for Aftenposten have not had enough expertise to know what’s the normal picture of the mobile network in Oslo,” added the leader of PST’s investigation, Arnstein Jørgensen.
PST admitted that it had used false base stations around 30 times during the past three years in the Oslo area, but only after legal clearance from the courts. Questions have arisen over whether the false base stations detected by Aftenposten and its experts in December were actually set up by PST itself and that the newspaper caught PST spying. The signals emitted by the false base stations disappeared shortly after the paper’s first stories were published, indicating that they’d been dismantled. Bjørnland denied that any of its activity or that of the Oslo Police “had any influence on the data on which Aftenposten based its conclusions.”
PST’s ‘head on the block’
Both Aftenposten and PST have a lot of prestige at stake in the mobile surveillance issue. Aftenposten stands by its data and information from security firms Aeger Group and Cepia Technologies, both of which have called PST’s own equipment and investigation methods “outdated” and “inefficient.” Aftenposten’s news editor Håkon Borud said the paper expected PST to reject its findings, but was surprised PST was so firm in its conclusion without using the same equipment Aftenposten did.
Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, who has political responsibility for the police and PST in Norway, acknowledged PST’s conclusions but said he remained concerned with preventing illegal mobile surveillance. He said Aftenposten’s stories were “therefore important, even after PST conclusions, because they have raised attention to this area.”
Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, said PST had “put its head on the block,” because if they’re proven wrong in the end, “they will have a problem explaining themselves.”