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Swiss referendum on state snooping

September 25, 2016

Swiss voters are casting ballots to decide whether to grant new state powers to track internet and postal activity, as well as phone taps. Questions on pension reforms and environmental policies are also on the ballot.

Symbolbild NSA Überwachung Handy
Image: imago/avanti

Polls opened Sunday on a referendum that will decide whether the national intelligence service should be granted greater powers to spy on people suspected of committing cyber or criminal offenses.

If accepted, the law would enable Switzerland's Federal Intelligence Service and other authorities to tap phones, access mail, infiltrate email boxes, keep tabs on internet activity, and deploy hidden cameras and microphones to monitor suspects who are deemed a clear threat, but only if authorized by the federal administrative tribunal and federal counselors who have oversight.

Privacy is considered an important right in the Alpine country, where the intelligence service currently has to rely on information from public sources and from other authorities.

Early polls show the majority of the country's 5 million eligible voters are expected to approve the bill in light of recent attacks in Europe, according to a survey by Swiss public broadcaster SRF.

"We are all committed in this country to individual liberties," said Guy Parmelin, a member of the country's seven-person executive council and the head of the defense and public security department, who has campaigned in favor of the referendum. "We also have to avoid abuses, and all citizens must not be placed under surveillance, that's absolutely not the intention of this new law."

Rights groups argue against measure

Schweiz Referendum Durchführungsinitiative
Switzlerland's constitution requires direct votes on a wide range of national issues held four times a year with the last one held in February.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Ehrenzeller

Amnesty International said the new law is unnecessary and would allow "disproportionate" levels of surveillance. "The metadata for all people in Switzerland is already kept for six months [and] in the event of a crime, police ... can consult those details," the London-based human rights group said.

A Cold War-era scandal over surveillance has loomed large in the security verses privacy debate. Swiss citizens learned in 1989 that the security services had opened files on 900,000 individuals, detailing their political and trade union affiliations.

These revelations sparked outrage in a country where people fiercely guard their privacy, and led to significant curbs on police intelligence measures as well as demands for wider transparency.

Swiss citizens are casting their ballots on two additional referenda questions. Environmentalists want the government to create a sustainable economic model by 2050. And trade unions have initiated a vote on raising government pensions by 10 percent.

Preliminary results are expected after 1400 UTC.

jar/jlw (AP, dpa)