Prosecutor sees no problem with high number of wiretaps, lawyers disagree

Prosecutor General Lavly Perling.
Prosecutor General Lavly Perling. Source: ERR

Weekly Eesti Ekspress reported in September that the Estonian state's phone surveillance is ten times that of Sweden and five times that of Finland. Prosecutor-General Lavly Perling justified the authorities' extremely high number of wiretaps on Wednesday, saying that surveillance in Estonia is subject to "strict control." Lawyers Oliver Nääs and Paul Keres beg to differ.

The Estonian authorities only carry out covert surveillance of private individuals if collecting evidence of a serious crime by any other means is difficult or impossible, Perling said on ERR's Esimene stuudio talk show on Wednesday evening.

Any activity is subject to a court order and under "strict control," the prosecutor-general added.

Prosecutor-general: Strict controls in place, wiretaps subject to review

Perling said that she can "confirm" that surveillance is taking place only in the case of individuals where there is evidence of a serious crime having been committed. According to Perling, 30% of all wiretaps concern drug crime investigations, and another 30% suspected corruption cases.

"This is done if—and only if—collecting evidence by any other means is difficult or impossible," Perling said. "Wiretaps are subject to court orders in the Republic of Estonia," she added.

She also said that the number of wiretaps hasn't gone up, but stayed the same in recent years or even shrunk a little.

"The Office of the Prosecutor General would like to point out that if we carry out surveillance activities, what matters is quality, not quantity," Perling said. She also pointed out that any form of surveillance is subject to checks at several levels, including the Chancellor of Justice, the Ministry of Justice and different tier courts.

State wiretapping citizens' phones out of laziness, says lawyer

Lawyer Oliver Nääs, who has been a vocal critic of the Office of the Prosecutor General regarding its number of wiretaps and its surveillance activities, remarked that Estonian law allows surveillance activities in some 70% of all crimes. If Perling's argument is that surveillance is carried out only in the case of serious crimes, then that begs the question why this percentage has to be so high.

He didn't agree with the prosecutor-general that surveillance is used in Estonia only as a measure of last resort. "That's always debatable, whether or not there are other options in an investigation," he said. "We've arrived at a point where we're doing it out of laziness."

Nääs has pointed out before that in the digital age, wiretaps are a tool that is simply too easy to use: "You just push the 'record' button and pick and choose later."

Lawyers: Surveillance has destructive influence on whole population

Commenting on Eesti Ekspress' report in September, Nääs said that the awareness of broad-based surveillance and wiretaps has an influence on the population as a whole, infringing on personal freedoms, oppressing people, and at the end of the day having a damaging effect on society.

Lawyer Paul Keres agrees. "If people don't have privacy, if they start feeling that big brother is watching all the time, then they start acting and thinking in a way that they think will get them into the least amount of trouble," Keres told ERR News on Thursday. "And that's the end of creativity, individuality, and anything that makes life worth living."

Keres also pointed out that the checks Perling mentioned "mean nil," as the Chancellor of Justice has no real power, parliament in many cases has no real understanding, and that in seeking judicial review in the courts, access to the most crucial bits of information isn't granted.

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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