After noticing a roadside police check, a resident of the canton of St Gallen sent a message to a WhatsApp group warning of the check. Not long after he received a nasty surprise.
Speaking to the newspaper 20 Minuten, the man said: “Me and several others received a penalty notice this week. I received a fine of 850 francs because I warned of a police check via WhatsApp. What I wrote in the group is private and has nothing to do with anyone else. Why are the police involved?”
According to the law, this is only illegal if it is done publicly, so the case appears to hinge on the definition of public. The man involved told 20 Minuten that the group has around 200 members.
20 Minuten contacted Roman Dobler, a spokesperson for the public prosecutor, who said that the law doesn’t specify the point where a closed group is considered public. Dobler pointed to a racism case heard at the Federal Tribunal, Switzerland’s highest court, where the judge defined “public” as anything beyond family or people with whom you have a personal relationship. Adding, that St. Gallen looks more closely at closed groups of more than 30 people.
In 2014, 20 Minuten contacted the authorities in Zurich with a similar question. They said they consider messages public when they are sent to more than 50 people.
How the authorities gained access to the WhatsApp message is unclear. WhatsApp claims its encryption ensures only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between. Perhaps the authorities joined the group or someone in the group communicated with them? Whether this happened or not is unknown.
Switzerland has strict rules on things that attempt to thwart the work the police do on the roads. GPS devices that warn of speed cameras were made illegal on Swiss roads in 2007. As a result many GPS makers have removed speed camera alerts in Swiss territory. More generally the law states that equipment and devices capable of making the job of police control of the roads more difficult or ineffective are banned.