Companies are increasingly regarding Switzerland as key to security and the protection of private data.
Over 140 companies, many of them start-ups, have now established themselves in the EPFL’s Innovation Park in Lausanne. One of the principal reasons for locating to the Lake Geneva region, some maintain, is that Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world to offer real security and privacy of data. Protection levels can be expected to increase despite pressure from the United States and European Union on Bern to make information, particularly banking data, more readily available.
With data the lifeline of many businesses, companies are not just fearing government probing into their affairs, whether for intelligence or taxes, but also hacking by industrial thieves or competitors.
Recent incidents of spying by Washington on its allies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, has made many people nervous. As have the revelations by former NSA consultant, Edward Snowdon that the NSA has direct access to the databases of some of America’s biggest tech companies such as Google, Verizon and Microsoft. There is now a growing push by the Swiss government, companies and individuals to ensure that private data does not fall into the wrong hands. According to Perspecsys, a US company that seeks to protect data in the cloud, Swiss law “guarantees the protection of the private sphere for data processing carried out by persons in Switzerland.” However, this is not the case when transmitted abroad.
On a more global scale, there is also concern that intelligence organizations are the ones most likely to indulge in blackmail, or to provoke coup d’etats using information they have gleaned from multi-sourced databases. The NSA, for example, has for a long time sought to bar complex data encryption by companies striving to prevent piracy or other forms of privacy abuse, primarily because it wants to have the ability to access data. For this reason, the NSA has made deals with companies to be able to enter by the ‘backdoor’, but as one source noted, “if the NSA can do it, so can anyone else with the right tools.” China, too, has brought pressure on foreign companies to fall in line with often repressive domestic policies aimed at controlling information among its citizens.
Such concerns are broadly shared by a just published report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Geneva. According to Navi Pillay, head of the UN Human Rights agency, there is a “disturbing” lack of transparency about government surveillance policies and practises. This includes “de facto coercion of private sector companies to provide sweeping access to information and data related to private individuals without the latter’s knowledge or consent,” she warned.
The report, “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age,” was commissioned last December by the UN General Assembly. As part of its conclusions, the report stresses the need for greater vigilance and procedural safeguards against governmental surveillance programmes. It also notes that many governments do not have the legal justification under international human rights law to indulge in such surveillance. “Any capture of communications’ data is potentially an interference with privacy,” it said.
The UNHCHR chief further warned that the lack of accountability was contributing to human rights violations, “despite a clear international legal framework laying down governments’ obligations to protect our right to privacy.” The Geneva organization has been working for over a year on the impact of issues arising form modern digital technology and surveillance measures that threaten the right to privacy.
The report further highlights the growing involvement of private sector companies to conduct and facilitate digital surveillance. Presumably referring to the pressures brought exerted by countries such as the United States, Russia and China, the report added: “The enactment of statutory requirements for companies to make their networks’ ‘wiretap-ready’ is a particular concern, not least because it creates an environment that facilities sweeping surveillance measures.”
Both private individuals and companies would like to see greater legal responsibility taken by Google, Facebook and others to protect individual information. The same goes for online game companies, who knowingly addict young people. “The legal concerns need to start with young users, who do not realise the dangers of putting all sorts of private details on the net. This can come back to haunt them in later life such as when they’re looking for jobs. Young individuals can also be held responsible for revealing embarrassing details about their friends, by posting inappropriate photos or bullying other children into remaining online,” said Geneviève, a high school teacher.
Data storage is now booming in Switzerland with rising numbers of private individuals and companies attracted by the country’s traditional neutrality and privacy laws, opting to use Swiss data storage companies,. One company, Wuala, said that it used to have 15,000 new customers a month prior to the Snowdon affair. Now it has 36,000, a 140 percent growth. Other companies, such as Artmotion, are witnessing a similar rise in business.
Commenting on the UNHCHR report as well as allegations made by other human rights organizations about the need to promote greater accountability, one EPFL company director said: “For us, and many other companies, security and protection of our privacy are imperative. This has to be sacred. And the Swiss are clearly aware of this. Data security is certainly becoming a key issue for the future.”