The Environmental Board hopes to find a way to listen in to hunters' radio communication before the fall hunting season. It remains unclear whether the agency has engaged in illegal surveillance for years.
Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise asked the Environmental Board in June to cease illegal surveillance of people's radio communication. The board admitted to listening in on hunters' frequencies but said there is nothing illegal about the practice. It has been done for years. Head of the board's monitoring department Olav Avarsalu explained that listening to radio communication is a regular part of supervision.
"The aim is not to listen to what hunters are saying so it could be used against them but simply to understand where the hunt is taking place so we can monitor the outcome," Avarsalu said.
The agency has suspended the eavesdropping just in case and turned to the Prosecutor's Office for clarity. Senior State Prosecutor Taavi Pern said that the board's activity could in certain cases be interpreted as illegal surveillance.
The Environmental Board said that the Estonian Hunters' Society is aware of the surveillance, meaning it cannot be treated as covert. Taavi Pern noted that interception of communication requires proximity to hunters and should constitute listening in on particular people in a particular area, instead of monitoring all of radio communication.
Potential violations by state agencies cannot be investigated in criminal procedure. That is one of the reasons the Prosecutor's Office did not bring proceedings. Olav Avarsalu emphasized that the board has not broken the law, with Pern's letter revealing as much.
"For example, if I, as a supervisory official, happen to overhear people talking about something illegal they've done while on my lunch break, it does not mean I have engaged in covert surveillance," Avarsalu said. "If I made it a point to go where possible perpetrators communicate, then it would be my goal to eavesdrop," he added.
"Our interception of radio communication serves the purpose of finding ongoing hunts," he said.
Pern said that it would be better if officials announced themselves before eavesdropping. The board has considered this approach. Avarsalu said that notifying hunters every time surveillance starts has been mulled, while the notification might not reach everyone.
"One possibility we see is notifying every hunting society of surveillance on certain frequencies prior to the fall hunting season," Avarsalu said.
He explained that it is important to have clarity by the time of collective fall hunts. Otherwise, there would have to be a lot more driving around, chasing down tire tracks and listening to gunshots."
"Where we spend the day on supervision, drive the full distance but see no hunters."
Tõnis Korts, head of the Estonian Hunters' Society had no criticism for the board. He said that hunters take different views on the matter of surveillance, and that perhaps the time has come to renegotiate.
"The head of the society approved of eavesdropping back in the day. But times have changed and society developed since then," Korts said.
"If a few decades ago, surveillance didn't bother anyone, people take a different view now. We should go over these things," Korts said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski