Preliminary referendum results from the gfs.bern polling group showed the proposed law had won 66 percent support across the wealthy alpine nation.
Switzerland’s police and intelligence agencies currently have limited investigative powers compared to other developed countries: phone tapping and email surveillance are banned, regardless of the circumstances, but the new law will change that.
Swiss Defence Minister Guy Parmelin insisted the government was not aiming to set up a vast data-gathering apparatus, similar to the one developed by the US National Intelligence Agency that came into the public eye in part through former contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations.
“With this law, we’re leaving the basement and coming up to the ground floor by international standards,” Parmelin told reporters earlier this year.
“We shouldn’t compare (the Swiss proposal) to the United States or other major powers who have considerable means but go well beyond what is desired in terms of individual liberty… and security for our citizens.”
How it would work
Phone or electronic surveillance of a suspect could only be triggered with approval by a federal court, the defence ministry and the cabinet, according to the law.
Bern has said these measures would be used only a dozen times a year, to monitor only the highest-priority suspects, especially those implicated in terrorism-related offences.
The law was approved by parliament in 2015, but an alliance of opponents, including from the Socialist and Green parties, got enough signatures to force Sunday’s referendum.
The poll was part of Switzerland’s direct democracy system, in which votes are held on a wide range of national issues four times a year, and even more frequently at regional and municipal levels.
Cold War spying
Overshadowing the vote was a scandal dating back to 1989 and the dying days of the Cold War, when Swiss citizens learned that the security services had opened files on 900,000 individuals, detailing their political and trade union affiliations.
The 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.
The government’s victory will come as a blow to privacy advocates, including rights group Amnesty International, which said it would allow “disproportionate” levels of surveillance.
“The (communications) meta-data 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 rights group said.
But political analysts speaking before the vote said support for the law was no surprise.
“The main reason for the support is most likely insecurity, partly following attacks (in Paris and Brussels) and also the need to guard against the threats linked to cybercrime,” said Pascal Sciarini, a political scientist at the University of Geneva.