Private, plain-clothed security hired to go through the garbage of people living on the same street as the US embassy – among other things – has caused residents around the building to feel both worried and spied upon.
As reported, the US embassy has admitted to engaging in what is known as a Surveillance Detection Unit (SDU), essentially extending security surveillance from beyond the building of the embassy itself and into the neighbourhood around it.
Sources close to state broadcasting service RÚV say that private security firm Securitas had a contract with the US embassy until 2005. During this time, the guards were dressed in regular street clothes, and among their duties was to go through the garbage of people living on the same street as the embassy, the source contends. Securitas confirmed with RÚV that they once had a contract with the embassy, but would not comment on the details of the work entailed.
Meanwhile, residents near the embassy that RÚV spoke to said they often feel scared and put-upon. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, they say, security cameras around the embassy began to be pointed directly at the windows of surrounding houses. They also say that concrete planters set up by the embassy (presumably put up in front of the building for security reasons) impeded traffic and were set up without a permit from the city. A lawyer representing the residents took up the matter, but soon thereafter dropped the case without explanation.
A lawyer for the Data Protection Authority of Iceland told RÚV that no one but the police has the right to spy on civilians. The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has asked state police to look into whether or not the US embassy has been engaging in spying on Icelanders.
Embassy spokesperson Laura Gritz has emphasized though that SDUs are “neither secret nor spying. It is not used against a host country or its citizens. It is simply to watch for suspicious activity within the vicinity of the embassy and its employees.” She added that the embassy was fully willing to discuss the matter further with Icelandic authorities.
A Norwegian blogger has has added to this explanation in more detail, saying in part “the SDU will be stationed outside the embassy, working in plain clothes and will do its best not to be noticed or seen as having anything to do with the embassy. The members will normally be recruited from police or military intelligence, and are usually very experienced in their chosen field. They will actively follow, photograph, videotape and monitor persons that they deem to be deserving of that treatment.”