By Heini Järvinen

On 31 May 2014, several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the Swiss parliament in Berne to protest against mass surveillance by means of the so-called “data retention” of communications metadata.

A legislative proposal that would significantly expand state powers of surveillance has already been approved by the Council of States (the smaller chamber of the Swiss parliament, considered the upper house), without any significant opposition or media attention. Known by its German acronym “BÜPF”, the Swiss law on communications surveillance already imposes a requirement on telecommunication and Internet providers to record metadata of various forms of electronic communication and keep this data available for six months for possible law enforcement purposes. The proposed revision would expand the duration to twelve months and at the same time expand the scope of the surveillance: It would allow the authorities to not only require commercial communications providers to conduct surveillance on behalf of the state, but anyone operating any kind of communications equipment, for example a private wireless network, would have to support state surveillance and keep it secret. Many of the demonstrators were particularly expressing their concern about provisions that would allow the police to compromise the computers of suspects with trojan software and to use remote eavesdropping devices for mobile telephones, so-called IMSI catchers.

Even though the number of participants in the demonstration was not large by international standards (estimates ranged from “around 400” to “a bit under 700”, while the police officers who had come to check on gathering gave an estimate of “around 500”), it was still seen as a significant success in the Swiss context where previous demonstrations on digital rights issues had been smaller.

More significant than the number of participants was the broad range of political parties as well as civil society and business organisations officially supporting the protest. In particular, the list of organisers included the youth organisations of all major political parties across the entire political spectrum. On this basis, activists are optimistic that even if the legislative proposal is adopted by the parliament, it can still be defeated by means of a public referendum, which must be held if demanded by at least 50000 people who have voting rights.

A successful referendum would not end data retention in Switzerland. It would only defeat the change of the law that intends to expand its duration as well as the scope of communications surveillance. Since Switzerland lacks a constitutional court with the authority to declare a law invalid because it violates the constitution, and where the internationally recognised right to privacy is recognised as a fundamental right, the only realistic path to ending the data retention entirely in Switzerland appears to be to go through all the courts in Switzerland, and if they keep the decision unchanged, to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Demonstration against surveillance and data retention in Bern (only in German, 31.05.2014)
http://www.news.ch/Demo+gegen+Ueberwachung+auf+Vorrat+in+Bern/627799/detail.htm

Busting BÜPF: Proposed Swiss surveillance law threatens privacy, sparks protest (30.05.2014)
https://www.accessnow.org/blog/2014/05/30/busting-buepf

ISOC-CH supports the STOP-BÜPF campaign (07.05.2014)
http://www.isoc.ch/archives/1843

EDRi-gram: Swiss data retention visualisation (07.05.2014)
http://edri.org/swiss-data-retention-visualisation/

(Contribution by Norbert Bollow, EDRi observer)