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Digital identity scheme shot down by voters over data privacy concerns

Profile of a person in front of computer screen
The government has called for joint efforts to push ahead with digitalisation despite voters' rejection of the eID on Sunday. © Keystone/Christian Beutler

Voters in Switzerland have thrown out a law governing a proposed electronic identity system. The result is  a blow for plans by parliament and the government amid fears about data protection.

Final results show 64.4% of voters coming out against the planned law on Sunday. The rejection rate among the cantons ranged between 70.7% and 55.8%.  

At stake was the creation of the legal basis for a digital identity verification system, to be licenced and controlled by the state but provided mainly by private companies.

The single access point is aimed at simplifying the use of online services offered by commercial businesses as well as contact with public institutions via e-government channels.

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“Mistrust in private companies was dominant and helped to tip the vote,” said political scientist Urs Bieri of the GfS Bern research institute on SRF public radio.

Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter acknowledged “a certain unease” among voters. She called on parliament and critics of the failed plan to now cooperate to avoid a standstill.

“We have no choice and must work towards a new solution, even if it takes several attempts,” she told a news conference. “It is key for Switzerland to catch up with other countries when it comes digitalisation.”

Daniel Graf of the referendum committee said voters had not come out against a digital identity scheme but only against the proposed solution. Green Party parliamentarian Sibel Arslan, who also opposed the law, said voters made it clear that they want an eID provided only by the government and under democratic control.

People’s Party parliamentarian Franz Grüter, a supporter of the failed electronic identity scheme, said he was disappointed but is confident that a solution can be found for a new proposal.

Civil society group

The law at stake was approved by parliament in 2019 but then challenged to a referendum by an alliance of civil society groups, backed by trade unions as well as left-wing and some centrist parties.

The opponents argued the state should not be limited to acting as a licensing and oversight authority but that it should take full responsibility. The risk of data abuse by commercial providers would undermine the effort to make digitalisation more democratic, they say.

That said, the need for some form of an eID for the business community was not contested by opponents. Switzerland is lagging behind many European countries following unsuccessful attempts over the past decades to set up a single login system for users of online services.

No capacity

The government, which launched the bill three years ago, had said the proposed law sets the basis for a secure online login system.

During the campaign, Keller-Sutter praised the law as a compromise, sharing out the tasks between the state and the private sector.

Supporters of the law also pointed out that almost no government has the IT capacity and resources to single-handedly develop an eID quickly and to the appropriate standards.

A previous attempt to set up a public-private e-identity solution, known as SuisseID, failed more than ten years ago.

Complex and Covid

The relative complexity of the issue at stake made it challenging for citizens to form their opinion, said Lukas Golder, co-director of the GfS Bern research institute.

Doubts over the practical use of the eID and concerns about potential data abuse have been overwhelming, he said.

Several political scientists also pointed out that opposition to the law was a protest vote against the government and its anti-Covid policy.

Keller-Sutter said the current restrictions on public gatherings due to the pandemic had made campaigning and face-to-face meeting with voters more difficult. 

Public attention also appeared to focus more on the other issues up for vote on Sunday: a proposal to ban facial coverings, including the burka, and to a lesser extent, a controversial free trade deal between Switzerland and Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil.

Ban on facial covering/Burka:              51.2% yes      48.8% no

Digital identification/eID:                      35.6% yes      64.4% no

Free trade accord with Indonesia:       51.6.% yes      48.4% no

Turnout: 51.4%

About 5.5 million Swiss citizens, including registered expat Swiss, were eligible to take part in the votes.

There were also numerous ballots at cantonal and local levels on March 7.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR