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Online surveillance

July 26, 2011

Days after the bombing and shootings in Oslo, politicians and police around Europe say they want increased Internet monitoring. Officials from Finland, Estonia and Germany have all called for expanded monitoring powers.

Girl placing flowers
After the Norway attacks, officials have called for Internet monitoringImage: dapd

In the wake of the bombing and shooting spree in Norway last week, some nations in Europe are now calling for increased Internet surveillance as a possible preventive measure.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a Twitter message, a YouTube video, and a 1,500-page manifesto have been found online written by Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who has confessed to the crimes.

In an Oslo court on Monday, Breivik admitted to the bombing and the shootings, but pled not guilty to the charges against him.

Anders Behring Breivik
Anders Behring Breivik admitted to last Friday's bombing and shooting spreeImage: AP

This week, politicians from Germany, Finland and Estonia have all called for more extensive online monitoring, which, they argue, could in the future possibly prevent these types of attacks.

German conservatives seek data retention revival

In Germany, conservative politicians have used the Norway attacks as an occasion to revive their plan to bring back previously overturned data retention laws.

These laws were originally written to comply with the 2006 European Union data retention directive, which required that all telecommunications and Internet companies record and store six months worth of traffic, correspondence and location data.

However, in March 2010, the German constitutional court declared those laws unconstitutional in Germany, a decision that was later followed by national courts in Romania and the Czech Republic.

Hans-Peter Uhl
Hans-Peter Uhl called on German politicians to bring back data retention lawsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

On Monday, Hans-Peter Uhl, a domestic policy spokesperson for the conservative Christian Democrats, said that the Norway attacks proved that Germany needed to bring back its data retention laws.

"Only if the investigators can trace the communication during the planning of attacks can they thwart such crimes and protect people," he told German media.

Representatives from the Free Democratic (FDP) and Green parties have dismissed the new proposal for data retention.

One FDP member, Jörg-Uwe Hahn, the justice minister for the state of Hessen, in central Germany, called the new proposal "tasteless."

More intense scrutiny

"We have enhanced network intelligence at the moment," said Robin Lardot, the Deputy National Police Commissioner of Finland, during a Monday interview with Finnish television broadcaster, YLE.

However, on Tuesday, Lardot did not respond to a request by e-mail and by phone for further details.

Man online
Finnish authorities say they have 'enhanced' Internet surveillanceImage: AP

"In this [Norway's] case, a person has also planned the action for a long time," he added in the Monday interview. "When we had school shootings here, nearly all of them had the same trait: they had leaks. In other words, the perpetrators had the need to tell that they were planning something like this."

In the interview, Lardot pointed to a two-year-old program in Finland that lets website operators place a "blue button" on any page, which can alert authorities of possible criminal behavior in a single mouse click.

He added that several thousand reports have been made in each of the last two years, and that such tips can lead to further inquiry by Finnish law enforcement. Norwegian authorities have had a similar system since 2008.

Estonians call for faster IP address identification

Meanwhile, government officials from Finland's neighbor to the south, Estonia, have argued for an expansion of specific powers, namely, the ability to quickly look up an IP address, the unique string of numbers that identifies any device on the Internet at any given time.

Cyber defense meeting
Estonia already has a cyber defense league, as part of its National Guard military hierarchyImage: Tanel Rütman

IP addresses are geographically distributed, meaning it's relatively easy to figure out from what part of the world an IP address originates, but it's harder to identify specifically which computer and from precisely where that IP address was last used. Despite the fact that IP addresses can easily be faked, law enforcement still uses them as a means to trace criminal activity.

In a Tuesday interview with Estonian public radio, Erkii Koort, the undersecretary for internal security at the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, said that it needs to be easier for law enforcement authorities to identify personal information based on IP addresses, particularly when the attacks originate from other countries.

"In today's world, a computer's IP address should be identifiable without any official procedures, as it saves significantly on time when a crime is committed and makes it easier to prevent crimes," he said.

Internet activists advise caution

However, many Internet activists are concerned that politicians will use this opportunity as a way to erode existing online freedoms.

"Whatever the context, police and politicians feel the need to reassure people with ‘new' policies when there is such a tragedy," wrote Joe McNamee, of European Digital Rights, a Brussels non-profit, in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle.

"Often the policies would have been irrelevant to deal with the tragedy but it doesn't matter - there is a ‘reassurance vacuum' which has to be filled with something... anything, even something useless and counterproductive," he added.

"The same vacuum exists in other countries, so - for our security (this is exactly when rushed, bad and ineffective policy is often rolled out) and fundamental rights, we can only hope that politicians act responsibly."

Mikko Hypponen
Mikko Hypponen said he was worried about overreactionsImage: Matthias von Hein

Mikko Hypponen, a computer security researcher with F-Secure, in Helsinki, agreed with this concern about overreaction. But thought Norway had taken the right approach.

"The response from Norway itself seems to be the sensible one: more openness, more freedom of speech, more democracy," he wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle.

"It's the other countries that seem to have this knee-jerk reaction of censoring the net and taking away our freedoms. We have to remember that Internet became the rich source of information exactly because it is open."

Freedom of speech

However, at least some law enforcement agencies seem to be aware of the delicate nature of striking a balance between surveillance and security.

"Freedom of speech always comes first," said Mikko Paatero, Finland's national police commissioner, in an interview with YLE.

"Writings on the Internet have to have a clear criminal intent if the police are to get involved and contact those people," he added.

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Kyle James