Proposals by Justice Minister Anders Anundsen to allow much more surveillance, wire taps, raids and data snooping in the fight against crime drew some surprising reaction over the weekend. While some politicians and privacy advocates are against it, Norway’s biggest newspaper came out in favour.
Anundsen announced his new surveillance plan during a press briefing on Friday, at which he stressed the global terror threat, the resurgence of right-wing extremists, threats against authorities and major changes in how criminals operate. He claims the changes he’s proposing will better equip the police and national intelligence agencies.
They include allowing police to basically hack their way into criminals’ computers and telephones so that they can read everything communicated on them. Police would also be allowed to conduct more secret ransackings of suspects’ homes or businesses and place more hidden microphones and wiretaps to track suspects’ communication. Anundsen also wants to make it easier for police to seize email accounts without the content having to go through the courts first. More audio surveillance is necessary, Anundsen argued, because more data communication is encrypted and difficult for police to follow.
‘Digital thought control’
Such measures sparked immediate opposition from the Liberal Party, one of the government’s two support parties on whom Anundsen and the other ministries rely to get proposals through Parliament. The Liberals’ leader, Trine Skei Grande, likened Anundsen’s proposals to “digital thought control” and the party’s spokesperson on justice issues agreed.
“We are deeply skeptical to this,” Iselin Nybø of the Liberals told newspaper Aftenposten on Saturday. She also noted that police can never know for sure who’s writing on a particular data machine, and stressed that there’s “a big difference” between what people actively say on the phone or send in a message and what they write without sending it.
The Christian Democrats, the government’s other support party, were more positive. “This would only apply in cases where there already are suspicions of serious crime,” said party spokesman Kjell Ingolf Ropstad. “I see this as a natural updating of regulations governing communications control.”
Like reading a diary
Anundsen compared his proposals to current rules regarding seizure of documents in a raid. “You don’t get much more access to the thoughts of a suspect than if you gained access to a diary,” Anundsen said.
Bjørn Erik Thon, director of the public agency charged with protecting privacy (Datatilsynet), was as skeptical as the Liberal Party. Gaining access to anyone’s computer without their knowledge, for example, “is very serious,” Thon told newspaper Dagsavisen. “People can make both good and bad choices in what they write, and their thoughts can be contained notes that aren’t always forwarded.” Thon fears the police can also be tempted to invade people’s privacy before it’s warranted “just because they’ve thought something that’s illegal.”
Newspaper Aftenposten, however, editorialized in favour of Anundsen’s proposals because criminals are becoming steadily more international and using ever more advanced technology. “The police’s tools must adapt to this development,” the paper wrote, calling Anundsen’s proposal “goal-oriented measures that would only be enacted against individuals and organized groups when there is suspicion of serious crime like terror, murder, human trafficking, kidnapping and sexual assaults on children.” The measures would not, Aftenposten argued, amount to massive surveillance that would have “negative consequences” for personal privacy.