Swiss police seek to quell G8 data protection fears

The Swiss authorities have supplied information about anti-globalisation activists to the Italian police Keystone

The Swiss authorities have been seeking to minimise concerns surrounding their decision to pass on information to the Italian police about Swiss anti-globalisation activists who might travel to the G8 Summit in Genoa. There are fears the move could have serious implications for data protection.

This content was published on July 20, 2001 minutes

The Social Democratic Party (SP) has written to the official in charge of Switzerland's data protection law asking him to look into what information is being divulged to the Italians and what will be done with it once the summit is over.

"The World Economic Forum [summit in Davos] earlier this year sounded the alarm," says SP spokesman, Jean-Philippe Jeanneret.

He noted that during the summit, many peaceful protesters were stopped by the police and had their identity cards photocopied. There was a public outcry when it was discovered that this information had been kept on file, in contravention of the law.

"We don't know on what basis this information is being sent to Italy, and what are the guarantees that a person's private details will be respected," Jeanneret told swissinfo.

"We want to know if Swiss law is being applied. And if there are loopholes, we want to see legislative changes," he added.

Such legislative changes are already being mooted by the Federal Office for Data Protection. At a press conference last month, it was suggested that the law needed to be revised to take account of "the development of information technology, globalisation... and the evolution of European law".

The Federal Police Office says the SP has nothing to worry about: "We are confident that the federal regulations on data protection are being fulfilled," said the head of information management, Philipp Kronig.

He confirmed that Switzerland had given Italy "relevant information for it to preserve security". This included data about potentially violent protesters who might then be more easily identified and intercepted. He declined to say how many Swiss citizens this concerned.

"This constitutes normal cooperation between security services in the run-up to an international conference," Kronig told swissinfo. He confirmed that a Swiss liaison officer was in Genoa to assess the needs of local police and help them if needed.

Kronig pointed out that, by law, the federal police can only monitor violent individuals: "We process no data on non-violent globalisation opponents, so therefore cannot pass on such data," he explained.

Nevertheless, Jeanneret is concerned about which criteria the authorities use to define a potentially violent anti-globalisation activist: "Is it someone who has already been convicted? Someone who has simply been identified as a possible troublemaker? If so, on what basis?" he said.

The exchange of information between Switzerland and Italy will become routine, if and when Bern signs up to the European Union's Schengen agreement, which abolishes border controls between members.

Jeanneret said that while Switzerland must play a role in maintaining security, these mechanisms must not be abused by police.

"The citizens have to remain constantly vigilant that the state doesn't transform itself into a police state, for a lack of democratic controls," he said.

Among the chief concerns of the SP is what the Italian authorities might do with information once the summit is over. Kronig said the data could only be used for the specific purpose for which they were handed over.

"Once this purpose is no longer valid, that data has to be erased," he told swissinfo.

And how could Switzerland verify that that had been done? "We reserve the right at any time to enquire how the data has been used," said Kronig, who nonetheless admits that Switzerland has to take the Italians at their word when they say they have destroyed the files.

With anti-capitalist protesters now besieging virtually every major international gathering, some industrialised countries want to take stronger measures.

Britain and Germany, for example, have suggested that a European "black list" of anti-globalisation trouble-makers be drawn up and those on it be prevented from travelling while international conferences are being held.

This suggestion has been rejected by their EU partners, and in particular France, which believes such measures are incompatible with data protection regulations and the freedom of movement enshrined in its constitution.

Kronig says Switzerland, too, prefers the current system, where requests for help are made on an ad hoc basis. He believes constantly updating a permanent black list would impractical.

by Roy Probert

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