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Secret service agents have licence to hack computers

Switzerland’s intelligence service has won approval from citizens to step up surveillance activities to prevent terrorist attacks imago

Voters have endorsed a law allowing the Swiss intelligence service to tap private phone lines and monitor cyberspace activities to prevent terrorist attacks. Critics had warned of arbitrary surveillance, but they suffered a clear defeat in Sunday’s referendum.

About 66.5% of voters came out in favour, according to final results.

“The terrorist attacks in Europe over the past few months made it difficult for us to convince citizens that more surveillance doesn’t necessarily mean higher security,” says Tamara Funiciello, president of the Young Socialists. 

Defence Minister Guy Parmelin for his part said he welcomed the clear result.

“It gives Switzerland modern tools to respond to current threats,” Parmelin told a news conference on Sunday.

He said the new law to come into force in September 2017, would give parliament strict controls.

The defence ministry is to evaluate new technological equipment and hire about an additional 20 staff by 2019, according to Parmelin.

Political scientist Claude Longchamp says the result is not primarily a vote of confidence in the government but merely agreement with increased powers for the secret service.

An alliance of civil society groups and mainly leftwing parties challenged a parliamentary decision from last year. Opponents of the law argued the privacy of citizens would be at risk if the agents of the defence ministry’s secret service were given additional powers.

They feared the authorities would collect huge amounts of data proactively, which could lead to a ‘Big Brother’ state surveillance system similar to the files scandal exposed in 1989 at the end of the Cold War era.

Critics said innocent citizens could again become the target of the secret service agents acting on vague hints and infringing basic rights.

Under the new legal amendment, the intelligence service can bug private property and phone lines as well as wiretap computers under certain conditions.

Combat terrorism

A majority of parliament, however, passed the reform last year saying the additional powers were necessary to combat terrorism and prevent the trade in arms.

Supporters also pointed out that three different institutions – the defence minister, the cabinet and the Federal Administrative Court – had to give the green light to open proceedings against a suspect.

The government expects about ten cases a year on average.

During the campaign, Parmelin said he hoped that Switzerland would be less dependent on information exchange with foreign secret services. The law will also pave the way for Switzerland to participate in a planned European database on suspected terrorists.

Old age pension boost:                       36.4% yes            63.6% no

Green economy:                                  40.6% yes            59.4% no

Intelligence service powers:                65.5% yes            34.5% no

Turnout: 42.6%

About 154,000 citizens, including Swiss Abroad were eligible to take part in ongoing trials with e-voting. 14.8% of them voted online.

Last year, the Federal Intelligence Service obtained about 9,000 files, but passed on about 4,500 data sets to agencies in other countries. The service employed 281 people last year. It is a merger of the domestic and foreign intelligence branches in 2010.

Terrorist fears

The campaign in the run-up to Sunday was relatively low-key.

Using social media for their campaign, opponents were struggling to win over the older generation. It was also noted that both sides remained stuck in their ideological positions, leaving little room for debate.

With the political left unable to stand united on the issue, their chances of winning the referendum were compromised from the start, according to analysts.

Latest opinion polls gave supporters of the law an 18% lead over their opponents, but the number of citizens still undecided was on the increase three weeks ago.

On Sunday afternoon, our journalist Jo Fahy gave a live round-up of the votes so far in this video originally broadcast on FacebookExternal link.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR