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Privacy and surveillance

New intelligence law likely to face referendum

Parliament has approved a law giving the Swiss intelligence service greater powers to monitor private communications in Switzerland. But the public still might have the final say on the issue – as critics are planning a referendum.

The ultimate goal of the new intelligence law, which was finalised on Tuesday after the House of Representatives voted it in – the Senate had already given it the green light – is to provide the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) with greater surveillance capabilities to fight terrorism, spying and arms proliferation.

Under the new legislation, the FIS will be able to monitor private online communications, tap phone lines and look at postal mail. It will also allow for the use of drones to record public events.

The measures are intended to be used a last resort, with a dozen limited “special searches” expected per year. Each must 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 will not be required.


But human rights organisation Amnesty International has criticised the law – particularly where it provides the FIS with access to data travelling from Switzerland to other countries via the cable network.

Concrete evidence of a threat would not be required to access private data, including sensitive professional information belonging to lawyers, doctors or journalists. Amnesty International argues that this this violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

"Exploration of the cable network is a form of preventive mass surveillance, exercised independently of any suspicion of criminal activity. This is a disproportionate infringement of our fundamental rights and that is why we reject the Intelligence Act," said Alain Bovard, a lawyer in the Swiss section of Amnesty International in a statement on Tuesday.

Opponents, including Amnesty and other rights’ organisations as well as leftwing political parties, have formed a coalition against the law.

They will most likely launch a referendum to give the Swiss people the final say on the issue.

Expert reaction

Rainer Schweizer, professor of public and international law at St Gallen University, says the amendments ignore data protection concerns.

"At least parliament has improved the control mechanisms," he told swissinfo.ch

Security expert Jacques Baud, however, argues that prevention should be increased.

"A strategic intelligence service must not become an alternative police force," Baud said. "What we need is to improve the strategic and political analyses to help our politicians."

For his part, Alexandre Vautravers, editor-in-chief of the Military Review magazine, welcomes the increased powers for the intelligence service.

But he says the procedures are "too long and too complicated" and that the service is understaffed.

The new law comes against a major scandal in the late 1980s when it was discovered that the authorities kept secret files on about 900,000 citizens, including environmental activists, church member and trade unionists. 

With input from Andreas Keiser, swissinfo.ch



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