The two government chambers of Switzerland have passed amendments to existing surveillance laws that would grant the police vast new snooping powers over the Swiss people. If not subjected to a referendum, the amendments to the laws (known as BÜPF and NDG) will come into effect in the springtime of 2016.
In their current form, Swiss surveillance laws have allowed government agencies to do some data retention since 2002: in particular allowing for the storing of Swiss people’s emails for six months. As if that wasn’t invasive enough, the government is now seeking to extend those retention powers to all forms of communications, and metadata, for the extended period of 12 months.
Forms of communication considered acceptable for data-retention under the new legislation include emails, phone calls, text messages and IP addresses. According to officials the “revision of the law does not aim at surveilling more, but better’ – a point that is being heavily criticized by proponents of online privacy. A Swiss campaign to stop the amendments called ‘Stop BÜPF’ (German language) lays out the reasons that they should be opposed as follows:
- monitors everybody as a precaution,
- monitors too much private information,
- uses ominous technology,
- violates fundamental rights.
The ominous technology in question is the use of cable tapping technology (much like the NSA’s PRISM technology), which would mean that any form of communication that occurred between a foreigner and a Swiss national would also be captured and retained. In fact, it is being touted that one reason for the amendments is to improve the Swiss government’s ability to barter with foreign intelligence agencies such as GCHQ and the NSA when it is approached for information.
While (under the new legislation) a warrant would still be necessary for the physical search of a suspect’s property, it would allow (German language) for the warrantless use of Trojan surveillance. This means that it will be legal for the government to remotely search an innocent person’s computer, or turn on their webcam without their knowledge. The law would also legitimize the use of listening devices found in TVs, smartphones, and tablets (or anything else they can be sneaked into homes with) to snoop on people in their own homes – without evidence – on a purely speculative basis.
Unfortunately, this is becoming an all too familiar rhetoric in the post-Snowden world. Whistleblower Snowden’s revelations were meant to embolden the general public and bring a new level of awareness to the citizenry of the world. His revelations were supposed to help put an end to the sweeping privacy-invading surveillance practices that ‘conspiracy nuts’ had been suggesting were occurring for over a decade.
Sadly, by bringing the NSA’s snooping into the mass consciousness, Snowden has served to legitimize and extend those surveillance powers into the rest of the Western world. Although he might have meant well, it is also true that unfortunately this ‘hero’ could easily be tarnished with the ‘Agent Provocateur’ brush and labeled with a tag that says ‘works for them.’ Such is the sad truth about what Snowden has actually achieved.
On an entirely different note, other groups are also concerned with the new legislation. Swiss ISPs, IT companies, and telecoms companies are expected to pay for retaining data (on behalf of the government) out of their own pockets. At the moment, those companies already have to do so, but it is worried that the amendments will incur further unfair costs and pressures on those businesses. SWICO (German language) a Swiss IT industry association had previously urged the government to reconsider, commenting that while it is true that the Swiss government does reimburse companies for complying, it is also recognized to be a token gesture that does not (German language) get close to covering the real cost of complying.
For now, the amendments to NDG have moved into the referendum stage, which means that if 50,000 signatures are collected the Swiss people will get the chance to vote on whether the privacy-invading extensions to the current laws are signed into existence. Unfortunately, even if pro-privacy organizations do manage to get the 50,000 signatures necessary to cause the referendum it does not mean that the law will not get through. After all, the Swiss people could still be coerced by the media (under the auspices of cyber security and terrorism) into agreeing to be spied on.
On its online blog, Swiss secure email provider Tutanota is calling on the Swiss people to sign the petition for a referendum on the amendments to NDG (the referendum petition for BÜPF is not yet in circulation, but will follow in the coming months). In the blog, Tutanota says,
‘A data retention law like the BÜPF puts every citizen under surveillance. In consequence, all of us are treated like criminals. We would never accept that the state puts a camera into every kitchen to monitor our dinner talks, but many people seem to accept having their online and phone connections monitored. This attitude needs to change.’
‘Unfortunately the privacy environment in our country just got worse, which is why we are actively participating in the referendum to repeal these laws.’
Some of the Swiss organizations that have so far begun collecting signatures for the referendum are Chaos Computer Club Switzerland, the Digitale Gesellschaft Switzerland and the Pirate Party of Switzerland.
If you are Swiss (or know somebody that is) it would be wise to encourage them to sign the referendum (German language) by printing it out, signing it and sending it off. Happily we can confirm that it is entirely free to do so, as the organizers are covering the postage cost. So take your chance now, to try and stop this draconian privacy-invading legislation from becoming law next spring.