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Swiss say yes to surveillance

JUSO Schweiz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This statement was originally published on on 30 September 2016.

In a public referendum held September 25, a majority of Swiss voters supported a new law that would grant the Swiss intelligence agency (Service de Renseignement de la Confederation, or SRC) powers to spy on telecommunications, infect citizens' digital communications devices with surveillance malware, and place microphones and video cameras in private locations.

The law expands the surveillance capacities of the Swiss government, but still requires intelligence officials to obtain approval from a federal court, the defense ministry and a cabinet in order to begin monitoring a citizen. This procedure is intended to distribute checks on power and thereby make the law less susceptible to abuse, at least in theory. In urgent cases, however, these approvals can be obtained retroactively. Citizens who are targets will also be informed within a month of the methods and duration of the surveillance, though there are exceptions if notifying the suspect is against the public interest, would affect legal proceedings, or could put people in danger.

The law won citizens' approval by 65.5%, with 43% of eligible voters participating. The bill was initially approved by parliament in 2015, but critics of the bill collected signatures to force the referendum.

AFP reported that Swiss defense minister Guy Parmelin sees the law's approval as a metaphorical “leaving [of] the basement and coming up to the ground floor” of international security service standards

Social Democrat parliamentarian Jean Christophe Schwaab, a leading opponent of the bill, expressed concern that the current government would circumvent judicial and defense approval processes. He also said that he is concerned that it could give way to a slippery slope effect for surveillance practices in the coming years, noting that it is very difficult to reject an urgent request from the intelligence service “in the current climate of general paranoia.”

The law is also raising concern among Swiss-based technology companies including ProtonMail, a popular encrypted email service provider known for its relative user-friendliness. ProtonMail founder Andy Yen expressed disappointment about the referendum results in an interview with TechCrunch, but he asserted that the law would have “no impact on ProtonMail,” due to the fact that the company does not collect or store users' email encryption keys (which are imperative to decrypting and reading the content of an email message) or personally identifiable information.

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