An alliance of leftwing politicians and representatives of civil rights groups has handed in more than 56,000 valid signatures to force a nationwide vote on a reform of intelligence law aimed at boosting the powers of the intelligence service, the Federal Chancellery announced on Thursday.
Parliament approved the law last year giving the Swiss intelligence service greater powers to monitor private communications in Switzerland, but critics have pushed through a referendum to challenge the decision by collecting at least 50,000 signatures within 100 days.
The change in law undermines people’s freedom and democracy by giving intelligence services too much power to monitor private communications over the internet and telephones or to bug private homes, the alliance argues. The change in law also makes it possible that someone Googling certain key words or terms might come to the attention of authorities.
The government has yet to set a date for a nationwide ballot on the issue.
It passed overwhelmingly in both chambers of parliament; but six years earlier a similar bill failed.
Online, phones, mail and drones
Under the reforms the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) is granted greater surveillance capabilities to fight terrorism, spying and arms proliferation by monitoring private online communications, tapping phone lines and looking at postal mail. It will also be allowed to use drones to record public events.
The measures were meant to be used as a last resort, with a dozen limited “special searches” expected per year that must each be approved by the defence ministry and the Federal Administrative Court, in consultation with the justice ministry and the foreign ministry. A judge’s permission, however, will not be required.
In the late 1980s, the discovery that Swiss authorities kept secret files on about 900,000 citizens, including environmental activists, church member and trade unionists, caused a scandal.