Swiss voters back enhanced surveillance law

The receiving station of the Onyx system of the Federal Intelligence Service in Switzerland. Swiss intelligence bodies will now be allowed to tap phones, among other measures to monitor suspects.
The receiving station of the Onyx system of the Federal Intelligence Service in Switzerland. Swiss intelligence bodies will now be allowed to tap phones, among other measures to monitor suspects.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

GENEVA • Swiss voters have approved a new surveillance law, in a victory for the government which argued that the security services needed enhanced powers in an increasingly volatile world.

Final results show the proposed law won 65.5 per cent support, Agence France-Presse reported.

Swiss police and intelligence bodies have had limited investigative tools compared with other developed countries: Phone tapping and e-mail surveillance were previously banned outright.

But the new law will change that.

The Federal Intelligence Service and the other Swiss authorities would now be allowed to tap phones, cut through mail, infiltrate e-mail boxes, keep tabs on Internet activity and deploy hidden cameras and microphones to monitor suspects who are deemed a clear threat.

Phone or electronic surveillance of a suspect will be triggered only with approval by a federal court, the Defence Ministry and the Cabinet, according to the law.

Officials said these steps would be taken just a dozen times a year to monitor only the highest-priority suspects, especially those implicated in terrorism-related cases.

The government insisted it was not aiming to set up a vast data- gathering apparatus, similar to the one developed by the United States National Security Agency that came into the public eye through former contractor Edward Snowden's revelations.

"This is not generalised surveillance," lawmaker and Christian Democratic Party vice-president Yannick Buttet told public broadcaster RTS as the poll results came in on Sunday. "It is letting the intelligence services do their job."

Switzerland was "leaving the basement and coming up to the ground floor by international standards" with the new measures, Defence Minister Guy Parmelin has been quoted as saying.

He insisted that the Swiss system was not comparable to those in the US or other major powers.

The law was approved by Parliament last year, but an alliance of opponents, including from the Socialist and Green parties, got enough signatures to force the referendum on Sunday.

The poll was part of Switzerland's direct democracy system, in which votes are held on a wide range of national issues four times a year, and even more frequently at regional and municipal levels.

The vote highlighted how public attitudes had shifted, with the law's proponents invoking the string of recent attacks across Europe - including in Brussels, Nice and Paris.

Several European countries have expanded spy agency powers. A recent Polish surveillance law extends the authorities' access to digital data and loosens the legal framework limiting official surveillance.

Switzerland remains unscathed by militant attacks but Reuters noted that some people had been prosecuted in connection with aiding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Swiss voters back enhanced surveillance law'. Print Edition | Subscribe