29 Jan 2014

The Swedish Security Service's hunt for direct access to Swedes' mobile traffic

The use of mobile data for intelligence gathering has reared its head in Sweden. Carl Johan af Petersens reviews the ongoing debate.

Intelligence agencies are on the hunt for mobile data Khunaspix

At the end of 2013, Swedish Radio revealed that the Swedish police and Security Service were conducting secret negotiations with telecom operators. The goal is to achieve direct automatic access to the user’s mobile and data traffic allegedly for the purpose of preventing crime. At present, the telecom operators are obliged by law to save and retain information in respect of their individual subscriber’s data and mobile traffic for six months. Law enforcement agencies could subsequently access certain information by specific demand. The salient information to which access is demanded is then manually controlled by the operator.

After confirming that negotiations had taken place, the National Bureau of Investigation presented the information to which they considered themselves entitled, i.e. positioning and location of a mobile phone as well as what calls have been made to and from a phone. Under this automatic system, they hope to be able to retrieve information without being subject to the operators’ scrutiny in each individual case.  

SSS refuses to identify operators approached

The Swedish Security Service (SSS), which is conducting the negotiations, has refused to answer which telecom operators have been approached and how many operators will ultimately enter into a contract with law enforcement agencies. They want the information on the operators who comply with the automatic system to be classified.

The telecom operator, Tele2, was quick to clarify its position in respect of the request of automatic information access and negotiations. Tele2 stated that it would not grant the Swedish police automatic access to their subscribers’ traffic data. Tele2 also subsequently demanded in a debate article published in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet, that the Government should stop the ongoing campaign to recruit operators to the automatic system.

Privacy debate

The privacy debate has gathered pace following the publication of secret recordings from a negotiation during which concerted efforts were made to persuade Bahnhof, the Internet operator, to enter the automatic system. The recordings reveal that scaremongering tactics were employed whereby it was argued that no one would want to be the CEO of Bahnhof if it subsequently came to light that the company had refused automatic access which might well have prevented a terror attack in Stockholm which left 800 people dead.

The head of the SSS was summoned to the Standing Committee on the Administration of Justice to answer questions on 19 December 2013. Questions were posed pertaining to their work practices and their communication with the operators. The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS) was also summoned to the meeting and stated that the Electronic Communications Act was intended to to protect the subscribers’ privacy. Furthermore, PTS questioned the legality of a system without a manual controlling element.

On the same day meetings were scheduled between SSS and the Swedish Data Inspection Board and the Swedish Commission on Security and Integrity Protection regarding the lack of communication with these authorities in relation to this automatic access system. So far no information concerning the outcome of such meetings has been reported although it is unlikely that this matter will be consigned to history any time soon.  

Carl Johan af Petersens is a partner at Advokatfirman Vinge

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