Eimi Harris Society, Culture, and Security

Swiss Referendum Passes Surveillance Bill

On Sunday September 25, 2016, Swiss voters approved, through a referendum, a bill that will increase the surveillance capabilities of Swiss intelligence agencies. Given that the bill was passed through parliament in 2015 and forced to a referendum by privacy advocates and “left-leaning” political parties, it is worth looking into how a “surveillance” bill could achieve support from 65.5% of voters in a country where privacy has been highly valued by its citizens.

The text of the Nachrichtendienstgesetz (NDG) introduces “new information gathering measures” and “differentiated data management and collection.” With authorization from a number of different bodies within the government, the Federal Intelligence Service would be able to engage in electronic surveillance of suspects using methods such as tapping phones, entering emails, and setting up hidden cameras. The bill would also extend the Federal Intelligence Service’s ability to “monitor internet traffic, deploy drones and hack foreign computer systems” as necessary.

Privacy advocates have spoken out against the bill, with Amnesty International citing the law as “disproportionate” and “a threat to freedom of expression.” But proponents of the bill have tried to contextualize the bill as a necessary, but restrained, upgrade to the national security needs of Switzerland. Swiss defence minister Guy Parmelin has clarified that the intelligence system being put in place is not meant to be anywhere near the level of other “major powers.” As he described it, Switzerland would be “leaving the basement and coming up to the ground floor by international standards.”  Yannick Buttet, vice president of the Christian Democratic party, also contextualized the law as a way to reduce the dependency of Swiss intelligence agencies on other foreign intelligence bodies in identifying national threats.

All in all, the Swiss government estimates that the bill’s provisions would only be used “about once a month” and enacted against “high-risk suspects.”

Given the somewhat mild nature of the bill’s surveillance provisions (when compared to the current surveillance system in place in other countries), the actual methods being authorized are  not entirely worrisome on their own. As with any surveillance provision, there is the possibility of abuse of power, but what the Swiss government and intelligence agencies are adopting is not much more than what is commonly used in basic domestic-threat surveillance in other countries right now.

What is perhaps more interesting is why the Swiss population has not reacted more adversely to these provisions internally. Ever since the “secret files scandal” in the late 1980s, in which the public learned that “one out of 20 Swiss citizens and one in three foreigners” had been placed under surveillance by federal police, Swiss intelligence bodies have been kept under restraint. Opportunities for surveillance have been at an absolute minimum, partially to preserve Swiss citizens’ privacy – phone tapping and email surveillance were illegal for authorities, “regardless of circumstance,” and “even Google Street View is restricted because of Swiss privacy laws.” These limitations even went as far as to “prevent authorities from relying on anything more than publicly available information or tips from foreign officials when monitoring domestic threats.” So it should seem surprising that, given the opportunity to limit this surveillance, only 43% of voters turned out to the referendum and 65.5% of them voted in favour of it.

The results themselves are indicative of the impact recent terrorist attacks in Europe have had on the Swiss population. Where the Swiss government made the connection that their “current intelligence laws were outdated and ineffective as global terrorism evolves and becomes increasingly sophisticated,” the Swiss people responded through the vote. While Switzerland has not had an attack by terrorists, attacks in their neighbouring countries, France and Germany, have made the threat just as real to them. At the same time, the men that Switzerland had arrested for plotting a terrorist attack in the country are set to be released from prison soon, and citizens have to face the reality that surveillance will be needed to monitor those individuals should they choose to remain in Switzerland. Given the circumstances, it is fairly clear to understand why Swiss citizens would approve the increased surveillance capabilities in their country. In a way, this is reflective of the increased public approval of surveillance in America after 9/11.

All in all, this Swiss surveillance bill, on its own, is nothing to be afraid of. Given where Switzerland’s surveillance capabilities were before the bill, these changes will add value to Swiss national security. Rather than focus solely on the potential for abuse and privacy violations, what we should draw from this referendum is how violence can affect the values of a population. And as long as we understand and remember why we adopt certain surveillance measures, perhaps we can avoid the extension of those powers and the abuse of that surveillance in the future.


Photo: “White 2 Cctv Camera Mounted on Black Post Under Clear Blue Sky” (2016), by WDnet Agency via Pexels. Licensed under CC0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Eimi Harris
Eimi Harris is a student working towards her undergraduate degree in International Relations and Economics at the University of Toronto. Her main focus in international affairs is cybersecurity, particularly diplomatic relations and normative development in the cybersphere. On the side, she enjoys watching films and is also working towards her Cinema Studies degree.