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Tech-savvy Green MP does about-face on expanded intelligence proposal

MP Jyrki Kasvi has had a change of heart on expanding Finland's intelligence gathering and online surveillance. He says it's the "least worst course of action" in the face of cyber spying.

Vihreiden kansanedustaja Jyrki Kasvi.
Jyrki Kasvi Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle

Green MP Jyrki Kasvi has made a name for himself as one of the Finnish Parliament's more computer-savvy politicians. When he first heard that decision-makers were pushing for expanded intelligence and cyber surveillance rights in Finland, he was stridently opposed.

"Earlier I was of the opinion that intelligence laws would jeopardize the privacy protections of Finnish residents to the extent that it would have repercussions on domestic IT companies," he says.

But now he has revised his position, saying that Finland needs to develop legislation governing intelligence work because when the authorities responsible for national security collect information in the cyber domain to identify serious threats, their work is, by nature, intelligence gathering.

"Finland definitely needs this law, so the authorities will know what can and can't be done, and so Finnish citizens will know their rights," Kasvi explains.

What made him change his mind?

Kasvi has participated in the parliamentary group responsible for monitoring preparation of the expanded intelligence bill as the Green Party's representative.

Kasvi, who has a PhD in information technology, says that the new intelligence law and increased surveillance of online traffic is the least worst course of action for Finland. He credits his about-face to many discussions with security officials and others.

"There are several foreign intelligence services working in Finland that are spying on us and our security authorities can't do anything to stop it," he says.

He also reasons that the security environment in Finland has experienced some monumental changes.

"Ukraine is as close to Helsinki as Utsjoki [Finland's northernmost municipality], and it has been the stage for experimentation with both cyber weapons and hybrid warfare," Kasvi says.

IT sector prefers regulation

As the author of several books on computers and the information society, Kasvi says that he had earlier been under the impression that an absence of a Finnish intelligence law governing communications would give Finnish IT companies a competitive edge over other European countries. After all, keeping data safe and secure is a paramount concern for many customers.

He has since learned that this freedom has actually caused uncertainty in the sector.

"They don't know what game rules the authorities are following, and they don't trust that it is safe to operate in Finland," he says.

The MP says that key improvements to the bill have also been instrumental in his reverse decision, most importantly the way that online surveillance zeros in on potential security threats. Groups working on the proposal say the protection of confidential communications has been safeguarded as a fundamental human right.

"The first elimination phase will be limited to identification data. This kind of limitation is unheard of in other countries," Kasvi explains.

Among other things, identification data reveals the IP address from which messages are sent. He says that the ability to narrow down IP addresses would allow authorities to eliminate large numbers of exchanges before concentrating on potential threats. Kasvi says that in his understanding, the law would focus on this kind of targeted intelligence and less on mass surveillance that trawls through terabytes of material.

In January, the European Court of Human Rights found the kind of mass online surveillance practiced in Hungary, for example, to violate people's fundamental right to privacy, home and correspondence.

More standardized surveillance techniques

Kasvi says international methods of online surveillance have also become more established since the bill was first considered. A new authority will be set up in Finland for monitoring cyber activities in real-time, with an unlimited right to unearth more data on suspicious activity. The intelligence officer fronting the new authority will also be able to attend court sessions in which intelligence operatives request permission to expand their investigations.

"In this way, he or she will be able to better assess the grounds for granting expanded rights and understand the workings of the district courts," he says.

A new parliamentary committee would also be founded to oversee the intelligence authority.

Not without its problems

Kasvi says that he believes the intelligence law is one of Juha Sipilä's government's best proposals, but he says it still has some problems. First, he feels it is necessary to define just what constitutes "a serious threat to national security" in both the Finnish Constitution and the new intelligence law.

He is also concerned about the possible consequences of expanded international data exchange.

"If Finland releases data, will it be used to violate human rights? Likewise, will Finland be benefitting from data that was obtained with methods that violate privacy rights?" Kasvi says.

He says he is also worried about potential situations that could lead to further expansion.

"We can't succumb – if something bad happens – to the inevitable calls for the security and intelligence authorities to be granted more powers. We have to be careful not to destroy the rights and freedoms of individuals".

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