It might seem like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, but Switzerland went to the polls over the weekend in a referendum which asked them to vote on proposals to expand the government’s online surveillance power.
But remarkably, the new powers were supported by almost two-thirds of those who turned out to vote. In total 65.5% were in favour, while just 34.5 voted against the new law.
So what exactly have the Swiss voters got themselves into? Well, the new powers that will come into force are broadly in line with those we have seen being proposed recently in the UK and Belgium, amongst other countries.
The Service de Renseignement de la Confédération (SRC) which is the countries intelligence agency will now be allowed to spy on both internet and telephone communications, hack into private computers and install malware if they need to, and also put cameras and microphones in homes and on other private property.
It is pretty strong stuff, and of a type which would usually see public uproar and widespread protest. So why were the Swiss people so supportive of the new measures?
For a start, the new law does include some pretty rigorous safeguards which outline in what circumstances the new powers can be used and who has to give consent before they are.
The new law is being introduced to be used in cases of terrorism, threats to national infrastructure, spying, and anything related to weapons of mass destruction.
In neutral Switzerland, none of these are everyday occurrences and indeed the Swiss Government has claimed [in French] that they expect the new powers to be used no more than 10 times a year.
On top of that, approval will be needed from no fewer than three different agencies before the powers can be used. Permission will be needed from the Swiss Defence Minister, the Swiss Cabinet, and the Federal Administrative Court.
To have oversight from two government agencies and a judicial body is pretty robust in comparison to the types of laws being passed in other countries, but that doesn’t mean everybody is happy.
Among the most vocal opponents of the new laws has been politician Jean-Christophe Schwaab of the Social Democrat Party. He has stated that he feels the new laws “seek to introduce mass observation and preventive surveillance. Both methods are not efficient and go against the basic rights of citizens.”
Schwaab has also been scathing of the safeguards claiming that the current Defence Minister has no interest in upholding the privacy of citizens and laying into the whole Government for a “total lack of critical spirit” in the privacy / security debate that has been raging in Switzerland in recent weeks and months.
Schwaab is not alone in his criticism. Amnesty International is just one of the privacy groups to criticize the new laws saying that they will introduce a “disproportionate level of surveillance”.
But the issue has been passed by the Swiss people, so the matter is, for now at least, closed. And although turnout for the voting was not huge – just 43% of voters came out to vote on this issue – it is not an issue which the Swiss public take lightly.
Back in 1989, the country was rocked by revelations that the SRC had been keeping secret files on at least 900,000 Swiss citizens. And the rather sinister reason given for those files being kept was “un-Swiss behavior”.
That incident hit trust in the secret service hard, and although more than a quarter of a century has passed since then, it is not something that Swiss society has completely forgotten about.
But the arguments of the Swiss Government, condemned as fear tactics by some, have won the day on this instance, and the new powers will come into effect.
Some Swiss internet users will turn to VPNs to hide their online activity behind an encrypted connection, but many more will continue as usual and just hope the Government has not found a reason to suspect them of anything. It is an unexpected and slightly uncomfortable situation for the population of what is seen as one of the world’s freest countries to find themselves in.