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Sweden pilots surveillance technology to combat terrorism and crime

The Swedish police and security agencies are trialling surveillance equipment to help them respond to terrorism and crime more quickly

The growing threat of radical terrorism and organised crime in Sweden has sparked government-led homeland security initiatives to finance anti-crime projects driven by advanced technology.

To this end, the government has prioritised funding for specialist counter-terrorism agencies, such as Säpo (Säkerhetspolisen), Sweden’s national security service, which also has counter-espionage duties.

To bolster city-wide and community-based surveillance, the national police administration and homeland security agencies are cooperating to run a landmark pilot scheme in Stockholm using CCTV-audio surveillance. The project is expected to launch in the first half of this year.

This is the first time Swedish law enforcement has been permitted to deploy audio detection equipment in public spaces. The new generation of sensors being used in the pilot project are capable of picking up and identifying the location of sounds, such as gunshots, explosions and breaking glass, and reporting them to central police monitoring stations in real time. 

Technology is set to play a more prominent early-warning role to support Sweden’s homeland security, public safety and counter-terrorism strategies, said Joakim Söderström, head of the National Police Authority’s (NPA) camera surveillance unit.

“The use of advanced camera and audio technologies will enable police to respond to incidents more quickly,” said Söderström. “It means shortening response times by up to two minutes compared with a citizen reporting an incident to a national emergency hotline number.”

The pilot programme will initially be operated in Stockholm’s densely populated Järva district. The NPA needed special authorisation to use the advanced audio surveillance equipment, and approval was required from Stockholm’s County Administrative Board (CAB/Länsstyrelse) for the project to proceed.

Järva was chosen for the pilot following extensive talks between Sweden’s leading homeland security agencies and the NPA.

Read more about police use of technology

The CAB had already given permission for the NPA to conduct wider-range video surveillance in a number of high-crime urban and suburban residential areas of greater Stockholm. The CAB also gave consent for the NPA to conceal new camera and audio surveillance equipment at public locations, making such equipment, including microphones, invisible to the public.

The project will see the “placement” of hundreds of high-sensitivity compact microphones in urban communities selected for the pilot.  

However, the authorisation given by the CAB includes important privacy limitations. For example, recordings generated by the audio equipment cannot be stored and the NPA is prohibited from using audio sensors that have the capacity to record conversations between individuals in public places.

Apart from supporting anti-terrorism activities, the scaled-up use of technology will also help the police authority to combat general crime during the ongoing reorganisation of Sweden’s law enforcement agencies. This revamp will result in more centralisation of police resources, which effectively means fewer police stations and street patrols.

Sweden’s next-generation policing will put more emphasis on enhancing mobility and response times to crime and public safety incidents. The enhanced surveillance technology will be used to both support a more cost-efficient policing system and compensate for the continuing closure of traditional walk-in police stations in urban and rural areas across the country. 

The Järva project is seen as the first step in the police reorganisation plan to expand audio-supported CCTV surveillance.

“Using this technology means we can quickly determine whether the sound of any gunfire detected comes from a machinegun or a handgun, for example,” said Söderström.

Organised crime

Technology-aided policing will also help to investigate and deal with Sweden’s growing problem of drugs-related organised crime. Latest NPA figures put the number of organised gangs, mainly urban, in Sweden at 200 at the end of 2017, and the number of gang-related shootings in the country rose by 45% over the three-year period to December 2017.

But Sweden’s strict privacy laws could impede the expansion of CCTV and audio surveillance technologies available to the police. Sweden’s police must currently apply for local authority permits to conduct any kind of CCTV surveillance, but the government wants to change this restrictive law.

“It should not be the case that the police need to seek permission each time they need to use camera surveillance,” said justice minister Morgan Johansson. “For public security, a different system that more effectively supports the work of the police should be implemented.”

Under current legislation, Sweden’s police are permitted to install CCTV equipment only on a defined and temporary basis, usually for a limited period of one month. Permits covering the use of closed-circuit cameras for longer periods require a special licence from county administrative boards. Proposed new legislation, if enacted, would only require police to report the installation of CCTV equipment to the CABs.

The deployment of innovative IT and surveillance technology is taking place against a backdrop of persistent fears of terrorist attacks and radicalisation within Sweden’s growing Muslim population. The country’s homeland security agencies view the level of threat from radicalised individuals linked to international terror groups, such as so-called Islamic State (IS), as a constant danger.   

Terrorist attack

In December 2017, Danish and Swedish police cooperated in the arrest of a radicalised Sweden-based Syrian asylum seeker who was charged with plotting a terrorist attack in Copenhagen.

The scale of the threat facing Sweden, and other Nordic states, was illustrated in April 2017 when a hijacked lorry was deliberately driven into crowds along Drottninggatan in central Stockholm. Five people died and 14 others were seriously injured in the attack. Rakhmat Akilov, a 39-year-old rejected asylum seeker from Uzbekistan, was arrested and charged with the crime. He was said to have sympathies with IS.

That attack prompted Sweden to begin deploying geo-fencing technologies that use the global positioning system (GPS) to protect critical infrastructure and important government buildings from possible terrorist attacks.

This protective technology uses digital force fields to stop terrorists from attacking high-profile buildings and other assets, using GPS or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical boundaries. Sweden has also begun adapting cars to deploy the technology in response to the April attack. 

Mats Sandberg, head of Sweden’s National Centre for Terrorism (NAT/Nationellt Centrum För Terrorhotbedömning), said so-called “lone wolves” rather than larger-scale organised attacks by IS or al-Qaeda pose the biggest terror threats to Sweden going forward.

“The biggest risk we are seeing is the individual player, who has been inspired and perhaps radicalised almost on their own,” said Sandberg. “In our view, that risk is greater than a major coordinated attack with several actors, like Paris for example.”

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