Alarm sounded over data protection abuse

Campaigners fear data protection rights could be infringed following the September 11 attacks

Switzerland's top data protection official has warned against violating the rights of Swiss citizens during the fight against terrorism.

This content was published on July 2, 2002 - 07:50

Speaking in Bern on Monday, Hanspeter Thür, the Swiss Federal Data Protection Commissioner, said federal authorities already had extensive access to various databases and cautioned against turning Switzerland into a "police state".

"We have to closely observe the developments of the September 11th attacks," he told reporters during the presentation of his ninth annual report. "But a better security system shouldn't come at the cost of personal privacy".

Catherine Weber of ASS, an organisation that campaigns for better data protection, also blames the terrorist attacks for increased violations of people's rights.

"Basic data protection rights have been lost since September 11th. The authorities have used it as an excuse to make certain laws stricter," she told swissinfo.

Big Brother

Presenting his 150-page report, Thür also addressed a controversial proposal to introduce personal identification numbers for Swiss residents - a project that was given the green light by the cabinet last Wednesday.

The scheme would make it easier for different bodies, both private and public authorities, to access information about people living in Switzerland.

The Federal Statistics Office has been commissioned to design such a system and is expected to come up with a solution early next year, which will then be discussed in parliament.

Even though Thür is not against the idea of a personal identification system, he argues that such information should not be centralised and that there should be different numbers for different authorities.

"If, for example, the Federal Statistics Office needs a number, it could have one that is only available to them. I think a separation of information would make such a system more secure," he told swissinfo.

More power

Thür also pointed out that the commission lacked the authority and the manpower to ensure data protection was adequately policed.

This is a view echoed by ASS. "We are employing an increasing number of people to combat crime. But despite an increased workload, the Federal Data Protection Commissioner has worked with the same number of people for years," Weber told swissinfo.

"We're also calling for more power to be given to the commissioner because he is currently only allowed to make recommendations," she added.

Another controversial project is the introduction of biometric face recognition system, which is due to be tested at Zurich's Kloten airport.

Facial features¶

Biometric face recognition measures the distances between people's eyes, mouth and other facial features. Because each person is different it gives a unique reading for each individual.

Officials hope the new system will help them to clamp down on illegal immigration, but Thür, who is not directly involved in the cantonal project, wonders whether it will pay off.

"If we catch one per cent of illegal immigrants but test 100 per cent of the people, I am not sure whether this system would be worth using," he told swissinfo.

In his report, Thür also highlighted the dangers of using other systems, such as chip cards to store personal information, the introduction of health cards that would hold basic data about an insured person and the interception of wireless communication.

by Billi Bierling

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