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Working group tables constitutional changes to broaden official surveillance powers

A Justice Ministry working group has recommended greatly expanded surveillance powers for police and military officials. Previous attempts to give more muscle to Finnish intelligence gathering have run afoul of constitutional protections for individual privacy. The group has therefore proposed amending the constitution to scale back the current bulletproof protection afforded to private communications.

Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

According to the working group, the constitution currently regards the privacy of letters, phone calls and other confidential communications as inviolable. The current wording of the constitution, allows authorities to legally apply certain restrictions on the secrecy of confidential communications only in cases of individual or societal security or in the investigation of crimes that jeopardise domestic peace, in trials and security checks or during cases involving loss of liberty.

In a report handed over to Justice Minister Jari Lindström on Tuesday, the working group said that the constitution does not allow for limitations to privacy of communications in other circumstances, for example in an effort to safeguard national security or to allow officials to guard against national security threats.

Amendments to target suspected military activity

The group is therefore proposing amending the constitution to include new grounds for limiting the right to secrecy. According to the experts those grounds would include the need “to acquire information about military activity or such other activities that could seriously threaten national security.”

The regulations would define military activity as action taken by both state and non-state actors and information gathering would be the responsibility of national security officials. Intelligence information would be gathered for use by top-level decision makers as well as national security authorities.

According to the working group, the new regulations would not make it possible to introduce a system of universal, all-encompassing surveillance of national telecommunications.

Moreover the legal reforms will still have to comply with the fundamental rights inherent in the restriction provisions, as well as human rights obligations and EU law.

Critics: proposals still problematic

Although the working group recommends amending the constitution to include the national security interest as a justification for examining confidential communications, that alone won’t solve all of the government’s problems, critics say.

They point out that the government will still need to define what national security means to different government players. They have also criticised current definitions as being too loose and imprecise.

The report also does not address the question of who will watch the watchers – essentially, which official body will have responsibility for supervising surveillance programmes.

The report will next be circulated for commenting, following which a Parliamentary working group will begin looking at the required constitutional changes.

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