Revelations of contentious computer hacking activities by United States government agents have raised hackles about allegedly dubious behaviour of US operatives on Swiss soil and questions about the safety of personal and economic data.
Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, while admitting that the latest reports would not make relations with the US any easier, told Swiss public radio on Monday evening that it was important to “keep calm”.
Relations between the two countries are already strained over an on-going tax evasion row. Switzerland is faced with a US ultimatum to hand over confidential banking data which has provoked strong feelings among politicians and the general population.
Lurid and so-far unverified tales from a whistle-blower about US intelligence agents recruiting a Swiss banker after engineering a drink driving incident have only stoked the simmering tension.
“What is really very serious is that [US] agents are active on foreign territory, and violate the laws of the country where they are,” former Swiss parliamentarian and prosecutor Dick Marty told public radio on Monday.
“This is not the first time they have done this, and I must say that they have been spoiled by the Swiss. For too long Switzerland has tolerated CIA agents doing more or less whatever they wanted on our territory.”
Former National Security Agency employee turned whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has claimed in media interviews that he was stationed in Geneva with diplomatic cover when he first became aware of intrusive global snooping techniques.
His evidence that the NSA employs an intrusive computer programme known as Prism to snoop on people all over the world has fuelled a public row in the US, Britain and other countries. Prism is alleged to gather data from telephone companies and powerful online platforms such as Google.
Burkhalter said the news that Snowden had worked as a CIA agent was “a surprise”, and that his department had learned about it from the newspapers
“Should it be true, it would be a violation of the Vienna Convention [on diplomatic relations],” he added, but pointed out that so far there was no proof.
He said Switzerland had made a formal request to the United States for clarification.
Edward Snowden, 29, leaked documents of the NSA’s surveillance techniques to journalists after becoming disillusioned with the tactics of the intelligence agency.
The allegations included in the documents showed the NSA employing a code called Prism to target data of citizens all over the world.
Internet giants such as Google and Microsoft have issued denials to claims that they allowed the NSA access to sensitive client data. The NSA have said the data is needed to combat terrorism and is overseen and controlled by the US government.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong and was interviewed there by the British Guardian newspaper – the story was released on Sunday.
In the interview, Snowden said he worked for the CIA in Geneva in 2007 under the guise of a diplomat. It was here, he said, that he first encountered the scale of the snooping operation.
He also described how the CIA recruited a Geneva banker by purposely getting him drunk and then helping him after he was arrested whilst driving.
Martin Naville, chief executive of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce played down the credibility of the “weird” stories from a “disgruntled former junior employee” of the NSA.
“I hope that politicians [debating the Swiss-US bank data bill] look at these claims with appropriate scepticism,” Naville told swissinfo.ch. “The US intelligence services have been given a lot of power that we would consider unacceptable, but they are taking data to combat terrorism rather than enrich their country.”
However, Albert Stahel, head of the Institute of Strategic Studies in canton Zurich, is not so convinced that the data pillage is so restricted in purpose.
“It is naive to think that the US does not engage in economic espionage,” he told swissinfo.ch. “This is nothing new – it’s normal. The information carried in media reports is both plausible and possible.”
Swiss data protection commissioner Hanspeter Thür pointed out to the Tages Anzeiger newspaper that the anti-terrorism measures contained in the US Patriot Act gave agencies free range to information ranging from credit cards to social media, libraries, transport companies and telecommunications firms.
“There is little to nothing that we can do about it because even Swiss people give consent to hand over their data to US companies,” Thür said. “People should be aware that once they have signed the terms and conditions their personal data will end up in the US.”
The NSA snooping revelations are not the first indications of US intelligence operations affecting Switzerland – either directly or indirectly.
In 2006, Swiss data protection commissioner Hanspeter Thür condemned the CIA for monitoring global bank financial transactions via the Belgium based SWIFT service.
In 2010, Wikileaks files claimed that US embassy staff in Switzerland had been spying on UN officials – a claim denied by the US.
In March of this year the Swiss Justice Ministry destroyed files relating to the Swiss Tinner family whose members were convicted of supplying parts to an illegal nuclear weapons ring.
The Tinners, a father and two sons, said they were working with the CIA to expose the smuggling ring. The destruction of documents relating to the case was perceived to have been carried out by Switzerland under US pressure.
Companies should also be vigilant about securing sensitive data away from prying eyes if they conduct international business, according to experts. The Swiss Lawyers Association is planning to build a secure cloud computing network in Switzerland to allow safe access to communications and confidential data, according to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.
Swiss lawyer Sebastien Fanti, who specialises in data and technology legal matters, told swissinfo.ch that soon no personal data would be safe if governments accepted the growing levels of global intelligence gathering.
“We are engaged in an economic war that affects everyone all over the world,” Fanti told swissinfo.ch. “The latest NSA revelations have shown us that the capabilities of the US intelligence agency to process mass data in real time are far more advanced than we imagined.”
“I find it unbelievable that there are Swiss companies that still send sensitive data by gmail or store it in a US-administered cloud computing network. They will have to get wise to steering clear of using US services and find ways of encrypting their messages.”