By Isla Lamont
Switzerland’s citizens voted to allow the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service to increase surveillance powers in response to recent terrorist attacks in Europe, with 66.5 percent of voters in favor of giving the government the ability to tap private phone lines, deploy hidden recording devices, search emails, plant bugs, and monitor internet activity, according to the BBC. Such a vote is rare for a country like Switzerland, where CCTV cameras are limited and even Google Street View is restricted due to privacy laws.
The law was approved by the Swiss parliament in 2015, but had previously been blocked by both the Socialist and the Green parties. As required by Swiss law, they obtained 50,000 signatures to make the issue a national referendum.
The new law will take effect in September 2017. A possible long-run consequence of increased spying capabilities may be endangering Switzerland’s policy of political neutrality.
Voting was split largely along age groups, with younger voters choosing freedom and older citizens choosing safety before privacy. In addition to terrorism, the expansion of powers is also aimed at hindering hackers and other spies, according to Swiss Info.
Current laws require authorities to use only publicly available information or tips from foreign officials when conducting investigations on domestic threats. Such threats include not only acts of terrorism but also more mundane crimes, such as data theft. Switzerland shares a border with France, which has seen multiple terrorist attacks in the last two years. According to the BBC, the landlocked country has growing concerns of being a future target.
Citizens were warned by critics of the law that surveillance may be arbitrary and may infringe on personal privacy. According to Swiss Info, the critics also cautioned voters to remember Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and the Cold War-era “file scandal,” during which over 900,000 Swiss citizens were placed under surveillance.
Politicians across the country had mixed reviews on the vote, with mostly left-wing politicians opposing the power expansion. Tamara Funiciello, the president of the Young Socialists party, said, “The terrorist attacks in Europe over the past few months made it difficult for us to convince citizens that more surveillance doesn’t necessarily mean higher security.” Lisa Mazzone, a Green Party legislator, argued that proponents of the bill had used “a campaign of fear” to sway voters, according to Deutsche Welle.
Guy Parmelin, the defense minister, has been a vocal supporter of the results. He is calling the move one that gives Switzerland “modern tools to respond to current threats,” and an opportunity of “leaving the basement and coming up to the ground floor by international standards” of security. Parmelin also said the defense ministry will evaluate the need for new technological equipment and plans to increase its size, which should only require a specialized staff of 20.
The Swiss government said that “only in the most necessary cases” would these powers be exerted, estimating a dozen times per year. Compared to the scope of the United States or other major world powers, the advancements Switzerland plans to make are modest. The levels of surveillance that suit these countries “go well beyond what is desired in terms of individual liberty and security for our citizens,” Parmelin said earlier this year.