In Finland, no Big Brother is watching the web

In Finland, Big Brother is not keeping an eye on the citizenry, but some degree of surveillance may be possible in future. Despite legislation or lack thereof, many have voluntarily released their private information to smart devices and digital services.

The committee drafting the upcoming legislation on surveillance submitted its memorandum in January detailing how officials could legally acquire intelligence online. The proposal would allow officials to acquire international intelligence and engage in online surveillance within certain limits. A more detailed bill on the matter is forthcoming.

The proposal has sparked intense debate, as many of its opponents fear that the legislation will infringe on citizens’ rights to privacy and data protection. That proponents of the proposal seek to amend the constitution raises additional concerns.

Legislation dragging behind

According to Tuomas Ojanen, Professor of Constitutional Law, developments in the digital age have outpaced both legislators and officials. Legislation drafted for traditional communications seldom applies to our online world.

“I don’t think the constitution should be changed. Surveillance must be carried out within the limits of the current constitution. And even if we were to change the Finnish legislation, we would still be bound by international human rights agreements and the obligations set by the European Union.”

Professor Ojanen heads the Laws of Surveillance and Security research project (i.e., the LOSS consortium), which spans three major Finnish universities. The project has received significant funding from the Academy of Finland.

Finland will not get an NSA

Edward Snowden rocketed to fame once he revealed the mass surveillance conducted by the American National Security Agency (NSA). Professor Ojanen knows that the information that Snowden released has motivated many countries to tighten their regulations on online surveillance.

The extensive mass surveillance of online activities of the kind the NSA was conducting will not take place in Finland, due to both legislative restrictions and a lack of resources.

“If surveillance goes too far, the terrorists win,” states Data Security Ombudsman Reijo Aarnio to caution the most enthusiastic supporters of enforced surveillance.

According to Tuomas Ojanen, Finns would not necessarily even notice the proposed changes to the legislation governing online surveillance in their everyday lives. No matter what decisions are made, minor changes in legislation are invisible to the individual citizen.

This means no one should worry about typing the word “bomb” in an email and setting off alarm bells in an online official’s computer.

It would be more realistic to say that legislation is needed to govern online surveillance due to the current lack of clear rules.

Despite legislation or lack thereof, most Finns have voluntarily released their private information abroad long ago with little thought to their rights. Use of the Internet or smart devices leaves trace data of users’ location, friends, hobbies, even sexual orientation. Google, Facebook, smartphones and many other international institutions are collecting, storing and selling vast amounts of private information on their Finnish users even as you read these lines.