After Gamma revelations, Switzerland begins to debate export of surveillance tech

News & Analysis

There's a small storm brewing in Switzerland around the private surveillance industry, as recent revelations have detailed how the country is quietly becoming a centre for companies to export their spy technologies around the world.

After initial media reports last month detailed how companies like Gamma International, sellers of the notorious malware suite FinFisher, are seeking licenses to export their technologies from Switzerland, we wrote to over 70 Swiss lawmakers, highlighting our concerns and drawing their attention to the activity that was happening right under their noses.

The response was swift. Politicians and Swiss media are now beginning to ask the tough questions, like: Why are surveillance companies with histories of enabling human rights abuses around the world operating out of Switzerland?

A growth in activity

The issue was carried by national broadcaster RTS on the main evening news, while it was carried as a headline feature of the Swiss daily Tagblatt. The story spread to other media, with the Sunday paper Schweiz am Sonntag, and the online magazine Beobachter highlighting the growth in activity of surveillance companies in Switzerland.

The news that companies based in Switzerland are trying to export this technology is generating interest in the Swiss Federal Assembly as well, with Parliamentarian Geraldine Savary from the Swiss Socialist Party (PSS) raising concerns that the issue will have to be dealt with quickly. 

Crucially, and in stark contrast to many other European countries, a debate is now stirring in Switzerland as they examine their role in allowing the export technologies to aid repression abroad. Through placing a Motion in Parliament, Swiss Green Party (GPS) Councillor Balthasar Gl├Ąttli is seeking a debate to call on the Swiss Government to set down clear rules ensuring that technologies that can be used for the repression of dissidents may not be exported from Switzerland. This is a welcome debate, and should be replicated across other European countries.

Time to step up

In Switzerland, 'fundamental political implications' can affect who approves these exports. In this case, it appears several Swiss Government Ministries will have input into the decision making process, including crucially the Foreign and Defence Ministries.

We wrote to the Head of the Department for Defence, Ueli Maurer who also currently serves as President of Switzerland for 2013, and the Head of the Department for Foreign Affairs, Didier Burkhalter the current Swiss Foreign Minister and Vice-President of Switzerland. In our letter (below and here), we expanded on our concerns, and detailed the human rights and foreign policies that Switzerland has championed internationally, including ensuring that businesses operating in Switzerland should exercise a duty of care in their global activities, and support for international standards in building social responsibility into their market-orientated activities. Gamma International clearly does not meet these standards.

Approving these technologies for export would drastically affect Switzerland's reputation and the ability to engage in these conflict zones with a perception of crucial neutrality. We're happy to see a debate starting is Switzerland, but that is only half the job. While political and public discussion on a countries role in enabling repression to continue is a healthy change, the authorities still need to do the right thing and refuse the export licences.