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Swedish police given green light to use spyware

Read time 2min 40sec

Sweden's interior minister Mikael Damberg has given a green light for the country’s police force to use spyware on suspects' devices to intercept communications and switch on cameras and microphones.

The decision was announced during a press conference this week, and is part of the country’s plan to upgrade law enforcement's powers, particularly when it comes to investigating gang or violent crimes.

However, police can only use these new capabilities if the crime that an individual or group is suspected of committing is punishable by a penalty of four years or more. 

Giving police the legal and technical means to intercept encrypted communications was a top priority, said the minister, as they were being left in the dust by attackers who often employ services such as Signal and WhatsApp to coordinate their nefarious operations.

Damberg told the media that 90% of all the communications police have intercepted for investigation over the last few years have been encrypted. He also said that Swedish police would have the option of deploying hardware devices capable of bypassing encryption, but he did not go into any detail.

The new rules and capabilities are set to enter into effect on 1 March next year.

Ilia Kolochenko, founder and CEO of Web security company ImmuniWeb, says law enforcement agencies across the globe have been using spyware to track criminals for over a decade now. “However, most of these activities were in a grey area of legislation.”

Law enforcement agencies should have the full spectrum of modern and effective tools to investigate and prosecute crime.

Ilia Kolochenko, founder and CEO of ImmuniWeb

He says in the past, their efforts could have been challenged by experienced criminal law attorneys arguing a violation of procedure, due process or the constitutional rights of the suspect. Fairly often, the evidence collected in offensive cyber campaigns was excluded from court proceedings on various legal grounds, leading to the acquittal of a suspect. In other countries, this type of spying would only have been approved following close scrutiny and approval from a judge. 

“Given that interception of [now entirely encrypted] communications is pretty meaningless, this is a wise move from the Swedish government. Law enforcement agencies should have the full spectrum of modern and effective tools to investigate and prosecute crime. The decision is, however, not without potential drawbacks. Firstly, we need to ensure a transparent and fair process to prevent abuse of power by unscrupulous officials. In the past, cases in which cyber warfare was exploited for personal revenge were not uncommon,” says Kolochenko. 

It is also important to ascertain that any spying software and the collected data are  properly protected from third-parties, he adds.

“Many law enforcement agencies may now unwittingly become low-hanging fruit for reckless cyber mercenaries looking for the data or newly released spyware. Cases of deliberate targeting of police and other law enforcement agencies are nowadays becoming incrementally widespread.”

  

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