Surveillance Technology Exports from Switzerland

For those who have been seeking transparency and accountability for public surveillance, the Swiss Government has recently been forced to publish a list of export licenses for surveillance technologies and other equipment, including details of their cost and destination.

The ruling was made by the Federal Information and Data Protection Commissioner and follows from consistent pressure from Privacy International, Swiss journalists and several Members of Parliament on policy makers, government officials and companies in Switzerland over the past year and a half. The commissioner’s decision was the result of an FOI challenge filed against the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) for its refusal to reveal information regarding the destination of the pending exports for surveillance technologies.

According to the released documents, mobile phone surveillance and internet monitoring technologies were the main equipment either being sold or attempted to be sold by Swiss surveillance companies. A total of twenty-one export licenses were granted for IMSI catchers in 2014, and were destined for countries all over the world, including Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Thailand, for a total cost of 8 million CHF (£5.2 million). Fourteen countries, including Ethiopia, Yemen, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkmenistan, attempted to buy internet monitoring equipment, but these requests were ultimately retracted due to the higher level of scrutiny paid on the industry in Switzerland.

Increasing Transparency

In its decision, the Commissioner cited the amount of media attention paid to the topic and that a recommendation should be given in favor of transparency. Privacy International rang the alarm on Swiss exports of surveillance technologies based on initial mid-2013 reports of pending licenses for surveillance technology.

It was revealed that the SECO granted 21 licenses for the export of the mobile phone interception technology IMSI catchers in 2014. Although attempts were made to block the release of the information on grounds of federal data protection and that the knowledge would impair the foreign policy and international relations of Switzerland, SECO has been forced to reveal the destinations: 14 of these were for temporary export and included requirements for re-entry, meaning they were likely used for trade shows or other demonstrations and exhibitions, but seven IMSI catcher licenses were for definitive export.

In early 2014, several companies withdrew their licenses for internet monitoring as well as several, but not all for mobile phone monitoring, following the media spotlight in late 2013, questions raised by Swiss Members of Parliament, and the refusal of the Government to make a decision on the licenses, For the first time, SECO has been forced to release under Freedom of Information, that the retracted requests were destined for Ethiopia, Indonesia, Yemen, Qatar, Malaysia, Namibia, two licenses for Oman, Russia, Chad, Taiwan, Turkmenistan, UAE, and China.

The Swiss Government has said that in general a poor human rights record or a lack of press freedom are not enough to deny the licenses. However, in light of the notorious Bangladeshi “death squad,” known as the Rapid Action Battalion, which were in the country to purchase or receive training in surveillance technology, it is clear that this is a serious issue.

Greater Controls

Those calling for greater control of the export of these technologies, either through the Wassenaar Arrangement or through national and EU level controls, know that regulation on its own will not prevent a government from approving their export. Export controls are the bare minimum in providing a level of transparency that is badly needed if governments are to be held to account and to justify their decisions to knowingly export such material to end users with appalling human rights records. This indicates the next step for Switzerland, as undoubtedly an examination will need to take place on how exactly the previously unpublished details of such an export policy aligns to the public facing pro-human rights obligations and reputation of Switzerland.


In early 2015, the Swiss Government was forced to publish the list of export licenses for surveillance technologies and other equipment.

CIPP Exam Preparation                                      

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/European Privacy (CIPP/E) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • European regulatory institutions (I.B.)
  • Application of the law (II.B.)



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