Can Europe Make It?

The Swiss debate on mass surveillance: what debate?

How did Switzerland, a country attached to the importance of personal privacy, respond after the story about the Snowden leaks broke? How did the government - and the public - react?

Richard Hill
14 May 2014
Andreina Schoeberlein/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Andreina Schoeberlein/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Outraged Swiss citizens threaten to launch a referendum if strong steps are not taken to curb mass surveillance.

That might be a nice headline if it didn’t contain two errors. First, in Switzerland a referendum can only be held to challenge the approval of a law; in order to initiate an action, the people can force a vote on an initiative (not a referendum). More importantly, there hasn’t been any significant public discussion, nor has anybody yet proposed an initiative. Nor has the government or the parliament done much.

So, sadly, Switzerland, in this case, is not acting any differently from other European countries, and this despite its long attachment to personal privacy and privacy of communications (article 13 of the Swiss Constitution), and its history of making its own decisions. But it would be unfair to say that nothing at all has happened.

The Guardian’s first story regarding Edward Snowden’s revelations of the scope and extent of the United States National Security Agency’s (NSA) pervasive surveillance ran on 6 June 2013. But, three months before that, a member of the Swiss parliament had asked the Swiss government whether it was aware of the consequences of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and what it planned to do to ensure that Swiss data protection and other laws were not violated by US agents. The government replied that it knew about FISA, that data privacy was protected in Switzerland, that it was monitoring the situation, and, that for now, there wasn’t much else to be done. Not surprisingly, and as it would turn out correctly, the parliamentarian was not satisfied with that response.

On 9 June 2013, the Swiss Pirate Party condemned the NSA surveillance and complained (referring to the parliamentary action mentioned above) about the passivity of the Swiss authorities. On 17 June 2013, the Swiss government publicly condemned the NSA surveillance. Two weeks later, the Swiss Pirate Party organized a demonstration in Berne.

In September 2013, the same parliamentarian posed three questions to the government (how to protect violations of data protection; how to protect Swiss sovereignty; what legal measures existed to punish NSA espionage). The government’s reply was basically a recitation of existing legal provisions.

Also in September 2013, a group of parliamentarians asked the government to explain in detail whether the NSA was also spying in Switzerland. Two months later, the government replied that it was investigating the Snowden revelations and that it condemned any espionage activity in Switzerland that violated Swiss law. It admitted that the Swiss security services knew about the broad outline of the NSA activities, and the methods it used, but stated that it was not aware of the scale of the damage that that surveillance could cause. This seems like an odd response: surely if they knew of the scale of the surveillance, they must have known of its negative effects. 

The Swiss government stated that it had asked the US government to clarify what it was doing; the US government declined to do so, but assured the Swiss government that it respected the laws and sovereignty of Switzerland. As the Swiss government itself said, this would be the case if the surveillance activity was not conducted on Swiss soil. So Swiss citizens could be monitored so long as the monitoring did not take place in Switzerland. The government stated that its security services did not cooperate directly with the NSA. It concluded that foreign espionage, in violation of Swiss law, was probably taking place in Switzerland and it condemned such espionage. It stated that it supported a proposal for a UN Resolution on the matter.

On 18 and 27 September 2013, a different Swiss parliamentarian asked the government to explain in detail what exactly it was doing and requested that it provide details on the extent of its cooperation with foreign intelligence services, and in particular the NSA. Two months later, the government explained that everything that it did was in accordance with the law and that it could not report in detail because of the secret nature of the matters in question. This is, of course, the same answer that other governments have given.

On 4 December 2013, the first parliamentarian mentioned above asked the government to study the matter in detail, in light of the public revelations about the NSA’s activities. The government again replied that it could not report in detail because of the secret nature of the matters in question. 

However, the Swiss government did authorize the Swiss Federal Public Prosecutor to open an investigation regarding possible violations of Swiss law and Swiss sovereignty by foreign agents. No information is yet available on this procedure.

In January 2014, the Swiss Pirate Party complained about the government’s passivity in this matter. This seems justified, since indeed the government has not taken any effective action (disclosure: the author is a member of the Swiss Pirate Party). 

While all of the above has been reported in the press, there hasn’t been much of a public outcry. So, while parliamentarians raise the issue, and the government does condemn the NSA surveillance, in practice nothing has changed and, for now, people are not mobilizing to ask for strict measures. But debates are taking place and well-informed people are working behind the scenes to see what can be done.

So the correct headline would appear to be “Concerned Swiss citizens continue to pressure the government to take effective steps to limit the effects of mass surveillance”.

Read more from our 'Joining the dots on state surveillance' series here.

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