Monitoring Extremists – Historical Perspectives from a Europe in Flames
The monitoring of extremists and radicalized individuals through their means of communication is nothing unique for our current day and age. On 30 August 1939, the management of the regional Danish telecom provider Jydsk Telefon Aktieselskab, JTAS, received a letter of complaint from a customer who suspected that his telephone was tapped. The apparatus had been acting weird for a couple of days. Most importantly, the signal became suspiciously "weak" whenever the customer tried to place calls to people in South Jutland, i.e. the part of Denmark that was closest to the border with Germany. His friends and acquaintances had experienced the same thing. A friend in Kolding had even ended up with Aalborg CID when he picked up the receiver, and the voice at the other end had asked the puzzling question: "Is this Kolding Police Station?"
Telephone surveillance anno 1945.
The customer was a lawyer and wrote with some authority. He demanded a clear answer from JTAS: Had his phone been "controlled by the police or others in compliance with a warrant or the Regulations concerning Telephone Tapping or as a matter of course"? He felt offended, as he considered himself "a good Danish citizen", and he contemplated the possibility of bringing the matter to Parliament via his political contacts. JTAS replied already on 1 September. Two days earlier the director of the company had consulted with the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Public Works, a certain Finn Hoskiær. The matter was sensitive, and the telephone director did not want to be held solely responsible:
As there has previously been a good deal of commotion in connection with the issue of wire-tapping, I would be grateful if you would consider the right course in this matter, so that I could call you sometime tomorrow to hear your point of view.
In the letter of reply to the disgruntled customer, JTAS announced that the company was “totally unaware of” any secret eavesdropping of the telephone line in question. Therefore, the customer was recommended to contact his local police department in case of future problems. The wording of this letter had been carefully deliberated. The internal copy in the JTAS archives states that the letter was composed "as above in agreement with Permanent Undersecretary of State Hoskiær" on 30 August 1939.
A Threat to National Security
The case may seem a bit odd today, but an important factor should be added to the equation: the customer – Hans Carl Bryld – was not only a lawyer; he was also a high-profiled Danish Nazi. As he proudly stated in his letter to JTAS, Bryld was a "member of party leader Fritz Clausen's staff in DNSAP – The Danish National Socialist Workers' Party". Moreover, he was editor of the Nazi daily Fædrelandet (The Fatherland).
Thus, it is not entirely unlikely that the customer was right - that his private telephone line was indeed being tapped. The men behind the letter of reply probably knew about this; at least the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Public Works. In August 1934, the General Directorate of Posts and Telegraphs had drawn up a confidential circular letter about monitoring of telegrams and telephone conversations which "may be considered dangerous to national security or stir up trouble in the country." The category comprised all telecommunication "considered to
Confidential Danish instruction (1934) about secret interception of all telegrams "that are considered as dangerous for the security of the state."
concern the Communist or Nazi movements in this country". Suspicious telegrams should be sent to the authorities in four copies and telephone conversations should be reported in writing. In separate letters to the local offices, specific clients were singled out as targets for extra careful observation, amongst these Fritz Clausen and the chairman of the association Friends of the Soviet Union, but also communist and Nazi editorial offices.
Europe in Flames
So the customer belonged to an extremist party that was deemed a threat to national security by Danish government authorities. The timing of the complaint is also significant. On 1 September 1939 - the same day as the JTAS posted their letter of reply - German tanks rolled into Poland. Two days later, World War II was a full-blown reality, as France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. War flamed up in Europe and the smoke blew dangerously close to the Danish border.
From the point of view of national security, thus, it would have been almost irresponsible not to keep the leadership of the Danish Nazi party under close surveillance. However, it should also be noted that the DNSAP was a legal political party with parliamentary representation. It was not a particularly big party, but the 1939 elections had rendered them 31,032 votes and three seats in Parliament. In other words, the authorities were snooping on elected politicians and their party workers - by means of the ordinary, daily staff in the Danish telecommunications sector.
Then as now, surveillance posed a serious democratic dilemma.
Surveillance Now and Then
The case has many obvious parallels to the global surveillance debate that gradually has developed since “Nine-Eleven” and the astounding 2013 revelations by whistle blower Edward Snowden. There are individuals who feel bullied by secretive authorities; the fear of extremists and radicalized individuals; the precarious balancing between national security and the fundamental principles of a democratic society.
The story also highlights the significance of communications technologies for matters of surveillance and espionage in modern (and post-modern) society. This is something that often puts the telecom providers in tricky situations, as hinted by the correspondence between JTAS and the Ministry of Public Works. Accusations of eavesdropping, snooping and leaking have always been deadly serious in the communication business, not least as they threaten to undermine vital customer confidence. Not very surprisingly, thus, there are many examples of contemporary ICT actors, from Danish telecoms to global giants such as Facebook, who protest against the often far-reaching surveillance measures that governments and intelligence agencies have implemented of late in their struggle against global terrorism.