If approved as expected by parliament later this year, Switzerland will have a new surveillance law giving intelligence services greater powers to tap the internet and private phone lines in the name of countering military and industrial espionage and combating terrorism. Bern wants the same tools as those who spy on Switzerland, whether listening in on telephones, infiltration of computer networks, surveillance drones or radio intercepts.
The Swiss parliament rejected an earlier attempt to strengthen secret-service powers in 2009. However, that was before revelations by US whistleblower Edward Snowdon about the extent of eavesdropping and data collection by his employer, the National Security Agency (NSA).
In presenting the Federal Council’s proposed law last week, defence minister Ueli Maurer denied the Snowdon affair had any bearing on their discussions. However, security expert Alexandre Vautravers of Webster University believes that concerns about the breadth of NSA’s data collection activities “has definitely changed the context for the present legislative discussions”.
Maurer sought to assure that privacy would be respected, noting that any phone tapping would require approval from the cabinet and judges on a case-by-case basis. “Switzerland is not planning to introduce exhaustive surveillance measures against its citizens,” he said. Such “special searches” would require proof that other means to acquire information were not successful and that a real threat exists. In addition, before any data gained in this manner may be used, its accuracy and relevance to national security would have to be proven.
The new law has three basic changes, according to Vautravers: “The constitutional basis, collaboration between cantons and the federal government, and surveillance of [internet] cable networks.” Cooperating with foreign secret services will continue to be subject to approval by the cabinet, based on a confidential list updated every year. Last October, Maurer denied that the Swiss government had ever had any contact or exchanged data with the NSA. But he did add that Switzerland was cooperating with the US in the fight against terrorism.
Traditionally, there has been resistance from the Swiss political left against expanding intelligence capabilities. This was partly the result of the discovery in 1989 that secret-service agencies had files on more than 900,000 people in Switzerland – about one in four inhabitants at the time. The files dealt primarily with travel and activities linked to political groups with connections behind the Iron Curtain. “But today all governmental parties realize the need to protect Switzerland, its inhabitants and its economy, against acts of terrorism and activism,” said Vautravers. Bern nevertheless continues to face calls from parliamentarians to lodge a formal protest with the US authorities or, at a minimum, to seek political measures in response to alleged spying activities implicating Switzerland.