Scandinavia hit by US spying claims

Controversial US Embassy surveillance programme

Scandinavians are reacting with outrage at revelations that United States embassies across the region have been carrying out covert surveillance against them for more than ten years.

It has emerged that surveillance teams based not in the embassies themselves, but in properties adjacent to or overlooking the embassies, have photographed protestors and individuals deemed to be suspicious and, after identification, information on some of these individuals has at times been forwarded to local authorities.

The United States has not sought to deny the existence of the programme. It claims that any such surveillance is normal, acceptable and within the law. It also insists it has been conducted with the knowledge of local authorities.

But in Sweden, Prosecutor Tomas Lindstrand has launched an investigation into the claims that the US embassy in Stockholm has carried out surveillance against Swedish citizens without the knowledge of the government, with Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask describing the issue as "very serious".

In Iceland too, the government has launched a full-scale inquiry to determine whether the programme went so far as to violate the civil rights of residents who live in the vicinity of the embassy, and the Danish government has also said it will investigate the matter if evidence emerges that the US embassy in Copenhagen has illegally taken photos of "suspicious" people outside its premises.

But reaction to the news has been strongest in Norway, where the existence of the so called Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU) was first brought to light two weeks ago during an investigation by television channel TV2.

Perhaps most troubling of all for the Norwegian government, however, is that it has since emerged that the Norwegian Police Security Service and the National Police Directorate both appear to have been aware of the program, while the government itself was not.

Norwegian Justice Minister Knut Storberget was forced to admit to parliament yesterday that during the programme's operation in Norway, the United States embassy had also recruited former Norwegian police and intelligence officers into a team comprising more than ten people.

When challenged yesterday about the extent of the programme, the American Ambassador in Norway made no attempt to avoid the issue. "We need that kind of security because a simple fence isn't enough," he said on the evening news. The embassy further insists that, "The Surveillance Detection Unit is not a secret program, nor is it an intelligence unit," and it points to the official State Department line that the programme, "emerged from the lessons of such tragic incidents as the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings in 1998."

All of the United States' embassies in the region have put forward the same argument.

But the comments of a security guard in Iceland contradict their version of the story. The security guard, who declined to be named, told Icelandic media website Visir that such surveillance activity went far beyond the immediate area.

If that is so, and in the other countries too, then it may well be Oslo Police Authorities and the Norwegian Justice Minister himself who will take the most heat for the United States' activities. Opposition claims of "system failure" and of the Justice Minister "losing control" are already beginning to drown out the outcry over civil liberties intrusions.

Others argue that the Norwegian government is too soft on the USA to properly investigate the matter.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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