Minister seeks to dispel “big brother” fears

Nov 5, 2011 – 18:21

A planned reform of internet surveillance promts fears of a state spying on its citizens

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A planned reform of internet surveillance promts fears of a state spying on its citizens (Keystone)

by Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch


Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga has rejected claims that planned internet surveillance measures will lead to the establishment of a “big brother” state.

The cabinet is due to discuss an amendment to a by-law on postal services and telecommunications in the coming weeks. Sommaruga has been criticised for bypassing the parliament in introducing the new measures, which have also incited fears that ordinary citizens could be closely monitored.

The amendment would set the legal basis for the tapping of internet phone lines and the surveillance of online chat rooms and social media, including facebook, youtube or twitter.
 
Internet service providers could also be forced to hand over data and passwords of users.
 
Addressing a meeting of representatives of cantonal police forces in Bern on Friday, Sommaruga said the new measures would apply exclusively to criminal proceedings.
 
“The amendment does not introduce new surveillance practices. It is simply adapting current measures to new technologies,” she said.
 
Sommaruga asserted that the federal authorities would not gather data at random, as surveillance would be restricted to criminal cases.
 
“It is my conviction that the state has to exercise restraint, and must not restrict the freedom of its citizens,” she continued.
 
But Sommaruga said the new measures were necessary for justice and police authorities to crack down on cybercrime.
 
“One thing is certain. The web is being used for criminal purposes. The police have to have state-of- the art technical means to prevent and take action against abuses and criminal activities.”

Outcry

Several organisations criticised the planned measures during a consultation procedure earlier this year.
 
ICT Switzerland, an umbrella organisation of the information technology and telecommunications sector, said changes to basic rights should not be allowed without a asking parliamentary approval.
 
Other groups argued the planned reform of surveillance activities would not be endorsed by the federal court and would be too expensive to operate.
 
The non-governmental organisation, Fundamental Rights, has warned of risks if private information lands in the wrong hands.
 
In an interview with swissinfo.ch in July, the organisation’s Victor Györffi, a lawyer, said innocent people could become embroiled in criminal proceedings and the authorities could store data and glean information about a person’s behaviour.

Police files scandal

Cantonal justice authorities have come out in favour of the planned reform. Thomas Hansjakob, prosecutor in canton St Gallen, said current laws were out of sync with reality.
 
“The technological progress has made surveillance of criminal suspects very difficult,” he told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.
 
In the late 1980s it was revealed that the federal and cantonal police forces kept secret files of up to one million people and organisations.
 
A parliamentary investigation found that the files targeted foreigners, notably from eastern Europe, but also Swiss citizens.
 
The revelations about mass surveillance, which went down in Switzerland’s history books as the “secret files” scandal, rocked public opinion.

Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch

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