Sa, 4.02.2023
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US Embassy secretly surveys people in Tallinn

US Embassy secretly surveys people in Tallinn
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Photo: Postimees

Postimees possesses a document proving that a secret unit at US Embassy has for years been surveying people on streets of Tallinn, collecting personal data citing security, and entering those whose behaviour causes suspicion into global terror database. All this is approved by Estonian interior ministry and happens with help by police.

«That this paper has reached you is definitely no pleasant news. This may make work for Americans somewhat harder in Estonia,» Postimees was told by an official for years current with such surveillance.

Looks like he was right. The document is not top secret, but with restricted access for «departmental use». Even so, this the first documented evidence in the world about how and whom Americans are surveying while securing their embassies and what the consequences may be for people walking the streets.

As Postimees opened the background to its article to Americans on Thursday morning, the embassy at Kentmanni St buzzed into frenzy. Having to do with a security leak, answers and coordination were required Washington. Postimees was asked to be responsible when covering the topic.

«I’d say this: the Americans have the right to see who is watching them, but it must be according to Estonian law,» said interior ministry security vice-chancellor Erkki Koort.

Estonians in US surveillance team

Summing it up: every day, there is a five-member surveillance team hired by Americans surveying movements of people in central Tallinn, in the triangle of Solaris Centre, headquarters of Eesti Gaas, and Olympic Hotel. They are paid for compiling threat reports. Every month, five-six such reports are filed in. Depending on suspicious movements.

They are private persons and are called SDU – Surveillance Detection Unit. Their office is located at an apartment at Rävala Avenue, close to the embassy. The unit is equipped with a jeep with tainted windows, six smartphones, video cameras, a couple of bicycles, spyglasses and clothes as unnoticeable as at all possible.

Outwardly, they are ordinary people. Should someone ask them, they are prepared with standard answers: waiting for a friend / on my way to the cemetery / to a bookstore. In reality, they are former policemen, security policemen or people with security sciences academy education now paid by USA. Their task is to see to it that no-one spies after US diplomats nor films the embassy at Kentmanni Street.

From entry-way to a private school

The SDU focuses on five spots in Tallinn. The epicentre of surveillance is the so-called red zone. This is an area of about 250 metre radius around the embassy. People walking there are surveyed 12 hours a day by at least one SDU member in private clothing. This person is tasked with recording all suspicious people who might be surveying the embassy or its staff, from Solaris Centre up to the City Centre (Südalinna) School at Liivalaia Street.

The other four members of the team are distributed over where the US Ambassador moves, the dwelling place of the marines guarding internal protection of embassy, and two educational institutions: Tallinn European School and International School of Estonia as attended by kids of the diplomats.

To catch the eye of the unit seems easy. All it takes is to linger for a while near the embassy or another surveyed site without an obvious reason. The unit may get alarmed by cars parking in the red zone, and even people regularly passing through the zone. An outright sign of danger is a photo camera carried by any person, possibly attempted to hide under clothing. Or taking a picture by mobile phone.

If a suspicious person or vehicle is detected, a member of the unit will secretly record his activities. Photos are produced from the recording and entered, complete with detailed description of the person, into a report entered into a global US government database SIMAS (Security Incident Management Analysis System). The latter is used to detect terror threat. In the database, people may remain for up to 20 years. The people concerned may not have a clue.

The rules regarding reporting suspicious behaviour are so strict that it seemingly takes trivialities to get reported. As an example of that, there is this Tallinn housewife included who often waits long for her child at the Südalinna School. Or take the old lady walking her dog in Lembitu Park. Need some more? A report has also been filed on a man who attends Alcoholics Anonymous close by.

Still, people may find out that they have been reported on. Like the Estonian who parked his van near the embassy, a few days later approached by the police. His vehicle was pulled over and law & order wanted to know why he had the van parked near the embassy.

The activity of the unit is okayed by Estonian government. Its information reaches the police, as agreed between the two countries. Automatic inquiry reaches Central Criminal Police which, as requested by the embassy, discloses personal data – such as background of the owner of a car, the person on the picture and his/her background. These data are added to the SIMAS report.

The SIMAS reports related to Estonia are not very numerous and Estonian authorities keep no account on these whatsoever. To the knowledge of Postimees, 65 reports from Tallinn have been filed over the past year. This would average one-two recordings per week.

Things may turn difficult when a person featured in a Tallinn report happens to also be entered into a like report in some other nation. For instance: while in Madrid or Cairo, near US embassies, they might be taking pictures of places of interest. 

Then, the Americans will be asking: why is one and selfsame person, in various locations, taking pictures of US embassy neighbourhoods. This may be sufficient to get entry banned into USA.

Wikileaks exposure

The US units were discovered as early as in 2010 as a document leaked into Wikileaks regarding US paid SDU units active in Oslo, Norway. One by one, such activities were exposed also in capitals of Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

Back then, Estonian interior minister Marko Pomerants (IRL) assured the media he knew nothing about such a unit in Estonia. Mr Pomerants lied not – only after the articles had been published was the minister was made current with what the US embassy was doing. As for interior ministry management, they had been in the know for a longer while.

To the knowledge of Postimees, SDU has operated in Estonia for almost a decade without an official agreement for that. Before 2013, the embassy had not yet hired its SDU team, but the job was done by the security staff guarding the embassy.

Things got official on October 7th 2013 as interior ministry vice-chancellor Erkki Koort signed the secret memorandum with US Embassy. In it, it is acknowledged that both nations are worried for the security of diplomats, wherefore even in the future Estonia grants the Embassy permission to use a security team to protect its staff and building. However, the only allowed method of work for the latter is monitoring. As soon as a situation arises requiring interference in public space, Estonian internal security agencies need to be summonsed.

What is the database SIMAS?

Security Incident Management Analysis System (SIMAS) is an US governmental database created at the beginning of 2000ies for the entry of whatever is suspicious that is happening near US embassies or consulates. To get entered, it is sufficient for people to be near an embassy or other real estate used by USA without an obvious reason, do it regularly, park for a longer period of time, take pictures or write something down, to look as one would monitor or survey some embassy worker.

Lion’s share of SIMAS reports are compiled by hired watchers in private clothes – the SD unit. A typical SD report includes a video recording, photos, detailed description regarding the time and the place, the person’s appearance, the route, the vehicle and its number plate. The entry may afterwards be complemented by things like passport data or personal data received upon enquiry from Estonian police.

The SIMAS info is viewable, in real time, for all US embassies. Also, the data is distributed to a minimum of 12 US governmental agencies beginning with CIA and ending with the Federal Reserve, which will use the data to detect terror threat.

Depending on the behaviour of the people concerned, entries may remain active for 5 to 20 years – or permanently. Getting entered may affect decision by USA whether or not to grant visa for entry.