Den nya industrialiseringenNorra Sverige

Nothern Sweden’s new green industries in spy scare

Uncertain global conditions increase the threat of industrial espionage against Northern Sweden's new industries. Northvolt is taking proactive measures with regard to security. (Archive image)
Uncertain global conditions increase the threat of industrial espionage against Northern Sweden's new industries. Northvolt is taking proactive measures with regard to security. (Archive image)

Deteriorating international relations means Sweden's security threat has increased, and the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) now warns of foreign espionage against Swedish military and industry. Security expert Johan Wiktorin says the new green industries in northern Sweden could be a target for foreign powers. "They are probably already exposed," he says.

Norra Sverige 14 augusti 2023 11:30

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has dramatically worsened Sweden's security situation. Säpo, among other organizations, warns that espionage and sabotage against Sweden's military and industry could increase as major powers such as Russia and China strengthen their positions. The large industrial facilities in northern Sweden could serve as targets for foreign powers, and security expert Johan Wiktorin believes they are probably already under attack.

– There is undoubtedly a risk of espionage against these industries, and they are most probably already exposed, says Wiktorin, a risk specialist and co-founder of security analysis company Intil.

Hybrit's pilot facility for the production of fossil-freesponge iron, or direct-reduced iron.

He sees the development of fossil-free steel and battery technology in northern Sweden as enticing targets for foreign powers. Luleå University of Technology is also considered a potential target for espionage.

– Everything related to new technology and manufacturing processes is of interest to these actors. Steel without carbon is particularly attractive, as is certain battery technology. There's also a technical college in Luleå that collaborates with various companies. It's not just the businesses that are targeted but also universities and colleges, he adds.

Security expert Johan Wiktorin thinks that industries in northern Sweden are most likely already being targeted for espionage by a foreign power. (Archive image)

The countries that use espionage to acquire technology and industrial secrets can employ different tactics. Wiktorin describes the two main methods usually used.

–There's cyber espionage, where attempts are made to hack computers to uncover company secrets, such as patents, research results, or product development information, he explains, continuing:

–The other method is to infiltrate companies and organizations and gain knowledge that way. This takes longer but provides deeper insight into the organizations, thus more information on how things actually function. These two methods can also be combined.

Johan Wiktorin points to Russia and China as the greatest threats to Swedish security but also highlights criminal organizations as a menace.

Illustration of the steel plant that H2 Green Steel plans to build in Boden.

– Generally, there are three actors: China, Russia, and criminal syndicates. The latter may gain access to information that can be sold, or information about individuals susceptible to influence and pressure from foreign states.

The new industrial establishments in the north require a large workforce, with thousands of people employed. Many companies recruit abroad, which can pose a risk of espionage by foreign powers. Wiktorin, who helps companies with security issues, says the risks must be weighed proportionately.

– You cannot go around suspecting everyone of working for a hostile state or criminal syndicate. Instead, you need to consider what information needs to be protected and who should have access to it, using a proportionate risk analysis and process during the hiring process.

In addition to the risks linked to industrial espionage, Wiktorin identifies another more insidious risk factor: disinformation and negatiely influencing public opinion.

–There's a disinformation angle where foreign actors use different types of influence. This can include initiating or participating in campaigns to denigrate assets in northern Sweden. They can create campaigns against companies, industries or phenomena to counter growth, he says, citing public opinion about wind power as an example.

Markbygden wind farm outside Piteå.

– You can take wind power as an example, where there is significant local discontent in certain places. There are also actors who try to exploit this discontent. It's a democratic problem, because we want to have an open discussion climate in Sweden, but there are some big powers that are trying to hijack and dominate issues and movements that were initially quite legitimate, he says.

In summary, Johan Wiktorin sees a complex threat landscape against economic development in northern Sweden. Foreign actors try to steal information and create negative opinion in various ways. He believes that the goal of these actors is to strengthen their position and research, while complicating development in the County, to the detriment of Sweden and those living in the region.

– Various actors are working to prevent people in northern Sweden from fully realizing their assets. It could be the theft of technology, attempts to stop initiatives and investments, or the creation of resistance to development. The better you can defend your assets, the more vigilant and systematic your risk management. If we do this, the result will be a very bright future in the north of Sweden.

Northvolt does not wish to disclose any details about the company's security measures, according to Anders Thor, head of communications.

The major players in the region remain tight-lipped on the issue, and none of Northvolt, H2 Green Steel, or SSAB are willing to be interviewed regarding the risk of industrial espionage. Northvolt requested to comment on the matter via email.

"There is a significant global interest in the battery industry as it's rapidly expanding and crucial for electrification and climate transition. Therefore, it's self-evident that we work comprehensively and systematically on security at all our facilities. Equally obvious, we cannot share details of how this work looks or the decisions we make, as it would risk undermining the purpose of the work and ease circumventing it," writes the company's communications chief, Anders Thor.

"We are working proactively and preventively," says Karin Hallstan, head of press at H2 Green Steel.

H2 Green Steel also requested to comment on the question via email.

"Industrial espionage is a high-priority issue for companies working on cutting-edge technology, and we are no exception. Like other significant security matters, we work proactively and preventively, ensuring internal expertise and collaboration with skilled external parties in this area," writes press chief Karin Hallstan.

SSAB chooses to abstain altogether from an interview regarding their work on the pilot plant Hybrit.

"We have an active security effort but choose not to comment on how it's structured," writes Hanna Hoikkala, a spokesperson for SSAB..

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