Sw parliament reacts privacy intrusion

24 May 2006

Jim Runsten, Anders Hellström

Recent proposals by the Swedish Minister of Justice to give new powers to the police at the expense of an individual’s right to privacy have attracted widespread criticism.

Over the last two decades, there has been an ongoing debate in Sweden concerning secret surveillance laws and police powers. The central theme has been balancing the need for such methods in order to fight serious crime against the rights of the individual citizen to enjoy a certain level of privacy.

The debate has of course varied in intensity over time. The recent proposals by the present Minister of Justice (including an unprecedented number of bills on this subject) has led to a new intensity in the debate. The proposals include provisions extending opportunities for the police to monitor electronic communications in order to fight crime, to use secret telephone surveillance and to use so called bugging. Furthermore, the police may be granted the right to use information received through these measures to investigate criminal activity other than the activity for which the measures were permitted in the first place. There is even discussion of making these powers available to the police, without any suspicion that criminal activity is taking place. The sheer number of new proposals and the rate at which they come, are making it very difficult for parliamentary and public debate to analyse and understand the consequences of these proposals properly.

The Minister of Justice has been widely criticised for not properly taking account of the infringements of privacy that the ever growing number of bills can be expected to cause. The Minister, on the other hand, rejects the criticism, stating that the effects on privacy of the measures are thoroughly reviewed in each case and that a new organisation is to be set up to permit increased parliamentary control in the area.

Increased parliamentary control through bypassing parliament? This seems to be a contradiction in terms. An investigation by the government’s legal counsel, the Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern), who also acts as a guardian of privacy in different fields, into how parliament controls the police’s use of secret measures has severely criticised the new proposals. The Chancellor states that it is very unclear how substituting the Police’s present duty of reporting to the parliament on a yearly basis with a duty to report to an organisation that answers to the government, not to parliament, can possibly increase parliamentary control. The organisation would consist of MPs, but there would be no official duty to report to parliament, thus in effect reducing parliamentary control. The recommendation of the Chancellor is that the yearly reporting by the police to parliament should not cease.

The law concerning secret room surveillance, or bugging, aims to give the police the right to place hidden listening devices in houses and offices, where there is suspicion of very serious criminal activity, such as murder, human trafficking or drug crimes. There have been earlier attempts to introduce this legislation, but, among other things, the question of what to do with any information that will inevitably be gathered that does not directly relate to the original justification for surveillance has so far prevented its introduction.

The decision on the most recent secret surveillance bill has been postponed until next year, after the Centre Party (Centerpartiet), one of the parliament minority parties, refused to back it in its present form and added its vote to those of the (normally majority-supporting) Green Party and Left Party, achieving the constitutionally required number of MPs to postpone any proposal for legislation for one year.

The Centre Party stated that it supports giving the police the right to bug premises, but objects to the vagueness of the proposal. The party further argued that it cannot accept bugging news premises, as this would infringe the constitutional right of the citizens to give information to be published without the fear of repercussion. The party also considers that the bill should include a duty to inform anyone subjected to secret surveillance measures that such surveillance has taken place once the surveillance has ended – this is not currently included in the bill. The party also wants people wrongfully subjected to bugging to receive compensation.

It appears that another opposition party, the Christian Democrats, are considering retracting its former support of the bill.
The postponement of the decision makes it possible for the privacy protection committee to finish its work and to review the question of the impact of the law on individual privacy thoroughly. In our view, this can only be a good thing.