Could NSA leaker Edward Snowden find refuge in Switzerland? It is a notion that has been seriously discussed in Swiss political circles recently. Snowden does not qualify for political asylum, as he is not under immediate threat in Russia. But he could be granted legal immunity and invited to testify as a material witness if Bern decides to proceed with an inquiry into alleged US spying on Swiss territory.
In 2007, Snowden, working undercover in Geneva, claims to have witnessed a plot in which CIA operatives got a Swiss banker drunk, involved him in a traffic accident, and then tried to get him to give them secret information. The general consensus is that if Snowden comes to Switzerland, his extradition to the US would be unlikely.
While the idea of Swiss residency sounds intriguing, a number of obstacles make it unlikely. First, there is the question of how to get Snowden safely from Moscow. Snowden might be safe in Switzerland, but he would be an open target while travelling. Moreover, while Bern might be tempted to tweak Washington after its ferocious campaign against bank secrecy, there is little to be gained from permanently alienating the US.
What may prove more intriguing, however, is the potential benefit from the climate of paranoia resulting from Snowden’s revelations. Whether he is perceived as a traitor or a patriot, it is hard not to conclude that the NSA ‘s indiscriminate dragnet for everyone’s secrets seriously overstepped the bounds of civilized behaviour. The abuse is all the more shocking because it comes from the US. “Everyone uses the internet to steal secrets,” says Francois Stieger, a Franco-Swiss angel investor, who works with software companies collaborating with EPFL in Lausanne. “The Chinese do it. The French do it. What makes the US special is that most of the major high tech companies are based there.”
The NSA’s recent actions seem even more unnerving given that Washington not only forced major companies to reveal customer information, but prohibited them from telling anyone. While paranoia about terrorism seems to excuse almost any abuse of power in Washington these days, the NSA had clearly gone too far.
It is at this point that Switzerland enters the picture. Washington may be able to force US companies to spy on clients, but the line stops at the Swiss border. The Swiss Data Protection Act is very clear on this. With more and more information moving to the cloud, Switzerland has become an increasingly attractive place to guarantee corporate, and personal cyber security. After all, Switzerland is politically stable and socially conservative, and in contrast to the NSA’s shenanigans, the Swiss do believe in the rule of law.
Swiss companies are rushing to get their operations ready for what they see as a potential new bonanza. Not least is Swisscom, which plans to have 70 per cent of its Internet infrastructure on its server cloud by 2016. The dominant communications giant could find itself overwhelmed by a virtual tsunami of clients from abroad – especially from the US – who are desperately searching for genuine cyber security.
Snowden may never actually return to Geneva, but in terms of creating new business opportunities, Switzerland already owes him a debt of gratitude.