Revelations by a parliamentary watchdog that the secret service collected data on about 200,000 people might seem like a repeat of a political scandal 20 years ago.
However, the public outcry – so far, at least – has been rather subdued, despite strong criticism in the media as well as by some politicians and judges.
The federal data and information commissioner, Hanspeter Thür, does not mince his words.
“It is a serious matter and it proves that controls have to be improved,” he told the media, following last Wednesday’s report by the delegation of the control committees of the two parliamentary chambers.
The report accuses the secret services of randomly registering people and failing to assess the data.
Thür, responsible for granting access to the database, also said the number of requests for information have risen immediately after the publication of the report.
Even more damning is Niklaus Oberholzer, a prosecutor in canton St Gallen, who was an investigating judge in the 1989 scandal over the storing of secret information.
“Something is definitely wrong if parliament draws the same conclusions after a lapse of 20 years,“ he told the St Galler Tagblatt.
He says the criticism levelled at the secret services then and now is virtually identical.
Lessons not learned
“The secret services have not learned their lesson. It also means that the politicians failed because they did not do enough to control the activities of the agents,” says Werner Carobbio - like Thür a former parliamentarian.
In an interview with swissinfo.ch Carobbio, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats from Ticino, points the finger at former justice ministers in charge of the internal secret service before it was transferred to the defence ministry at the beginning of 2010.
But Christoph Blocher, who held the portfolio between 2003 and 2007, downplayed possible shortcomings. The strongman of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party says he had always pushed for reducing the database, according to his internet television.
Following last Wednesday’s regular cabinet meeting his successor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said she was taking seriously the criticism of parliament. She said the cabinet would give a formal response to the report by October.
She also asked a former head of the internal intelligence unit, Urs von Daeniken, to step down as project manager for the reorganisation of the federal prosecutor’s office.
The defence ministry for its part on Sunday confirmed that the service would introduce a stricter policy and register suspects only following a thorough assessment.
Many newspapers, while criticising the collecting and storing of sensitive data, have been speculating why the discovery of the extensive files has - not yet – led to a huge outcry like in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War period.
In one report the Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund dailies are wondering whether the rather moderate political response might be due to the fact that most of those people registered are apparently foreigners and foreign residents.
But only to add that two thirds of those 900,000 people and organisations registered back in 1989 were also foreigners.
An editorial in the same papers points out that the spirit of the times have changed since.
“After 1989 the zeitgeist was for freedom. But now it is all about security. As a result the secret files fit perfectly into the political climate.”
Banks and Facebook
The Sunday edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung points out that the private sector is a more serious threat to the private sphere than the state and its snoopers.
“Some bank employees in Switzerland managed to make CDs containing names of clients, bank balances and transactions,” the paper said.
A cartoon in the Geneva-based Le Temps newspaper sums up nicely the obvious contradiction in the perception of privacy in the days of the worldwide web.
It shows a man complaining that he has been registered with the authorities. The police officer at the same time checks the man’s profile on the social network Facebook and says “No reason to complain”.
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch (with input from Sonia Fenazzi)
The centre-left Social Democrats call on the government to heed the recommendations and finally learn the lessons from the past.
The centre-right Radical Party says those responsible for the shortcomings must be taken to task.
The other main parties have not yet responded.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung described the latest revelations as an “inacceptable relapse”.
Le Temps openly doubts whether an intelligence service will ever be willing to observe the law.
The SonntagsZeitung perceives a tendency of the secret service to target foreigners and called for the head of the former chief of internal intelligence unit, Urs von Daeniken.
The report by a parliamentary watchdog showed that the secret services collected information about 200,000 suspects, mainly foreigners, considered a threat to the state.
The report said the internal secret service failed to observe correct legal procedures and neglected regular quality controls in breach of the law.
The watchdog issued 17 recommendations to amend the situation.
The storing of secret information has been a sensitive issue in Switzerland since a major scandal in the early 1990s. A special investigation found that the authorities kept data of about 900,000 people and organisations which had been put under surveillance.
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