Swiss trying to change image as Europe’s spy hub, say officials

Federal Intelligence Service SwitzerlandOfficials in Switzerland say new laws enacted in recent months will help them change their country’s image as one of Europe’s most active spy venues. For decades, the small alpine country has been a destination of choice for intelligence officers from all over the world, who use it as a place to meet assets from third countries. For example, a case officer from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) will travel to Switzerland to meet her Algerian agent. She will exchange money and documents with him before she returns to Britain and he to Algeria, presumably after depositing his earnings into a Swiss bank account.

There are multiple reasons that explain Switzerland’s preferred status as a meeting place for spies and their handlers. The country is suitably located in the center of Europe and is a member of the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, which means that a passport is not required to enter it when arriving there from European Union member-states. Additionally, the country features an efficient transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and its stable political system offers predictability and security, despite the limited size and strength of its law enforcement and security agencies. Perhaps most important of all, the Swiss have learned not to ask questions of visitors, many of whom flock to the country to entrust their cash to its privacy-conscious banking sector.

But, according to the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), foreign spies and their handlers should find another venue to meet in secret. Speaking to the Sunday edition of Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper, FIS spokeswoman Isabelle Graber said she and her colleagues were aware that their country is a venue for meetings between intelligence operatives from third countries. Such meetings have “continued to rise in the last few years” and include “everyone from security agency employees to freelancers”, as “the market in trading secrets has exploded”, she said. That trend, added Graber, has led to a corresponding rise in meetings aimed at exchanging information for money. Many such meetings take place throughout Switzerland, she noted, and are “in violation of Swiss sovereignty and can lead to operations against the interests of the nation”.

In the past, said Graber, FIS was unable to prevent such activities on Swiss soil, due to pro-privacy legislation, which meant that the agency’s ability to combat foreign espionage in Switzerland was “far more limited than in other countries”. However, said the intelligence agency spokeswoman, the law recently changed to permit FIS to break into homes and hotels, hack into computers, wiretap phones, and implement surveillance on individuals believed to be spies or intelligence officers of foreign countries. Armed with the new legislation, the FIS is now “working hard to clear up third-country meetings [and] to prevent these from happening or at least disrupt them”, said Graber. Several times this year alone, FIS had forward information about “third-country meetings” to judicial authorities in Switzerland, she said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 February 2018 | Permalink

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Swiss vote to give unprecedented surveillance powers to spy agencies

Federal Intelligence Service SwitzerlandVoters in Switzerland have strongly approved a proposed law that aims to expand the surveillance powers of Swiss intelligence agencies. The move is uncharacteristic of the Swiss, who have historically been skeptical of giving far-reaching surveillance powers to their government. In the late 1980s, Swiss public opinion was shocked by the revelation that the country’s Federal Military Department had spied without permission on tens of thousands of Swiss citizens for many decades under a top-secret project codenamed P-27. In response to the revelations, P-27 was ended, the Swiss intelligence agencies were reorganized, and stricter parliamentary controls were imposed on their activities. Today, even CCTV cameras are rarely used in Switzerland, while Google has not been given permission to incorporate the country’s streets into its Streetview application due to strict local privacy laws.

Opponents of the proposed law warned that it would end Switzerland’s long history of protecting civil liberties and would increase cooperation between Swiss and foreign spy agencies, thus harming the country’s tradition of political neutrality. But terrorist attacks in nearby Belgium and France have shaken public opinion in the small alpine country, which is home to numerous international agencies, including a regional branch of the United Nations. Consequently, nearly 66 percent of voters backed the proposal in elections on Sunday, which saw a 41 percent rate of participation. The result will allow the Swiss intelligence and security services, such as the Federal Intelligence Service, to put suspects under electronic surveillance using wiretaps, internet-based software, and hidden devices such as cameras and microphones.

Despite its long history of political neutrality, Switzerland is not unaccustomed to espionage scandals. In 2009, Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper said that a number of listening devices, most likely of Israeli origin, had been discovered in a room designated for sensitive meetings on disarmament issues at the United Nations building in Geneva. In June 2013, the Swiss parliament blocked legislation designed to help the United States identify tax evaders, just days after it was revealed that the US Central Intelligence Agency had conducted an espionage operation targeting a Swiss bank executive. And in 2015, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor launched an investigation into claims that the country’s largest telecommunications provider, Swisscom AG, had been spied on by a consortium of German and American intelligence agencies.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 September 2016 | Permalink