FECL 57 (March 1999):
Switzerland is to extend its electronic intelligence gathering to comprise telecommunications via satellite. On 1 February, the Swiss Federal Government approved by secret ordinance a "several dozen million francs" budget to this end. Under the plan, nine huge parabolic antennas will be set up at locations in the Cantons (federal states) of Valais and Berne.
According to the Federal Defence Department, the new electronic surveillance equipment will enable more effective gathering of "security relevant" information in the fields of "terrorism, organised crime and arms proliferation". The parabolic antennas will make it possible to monitor and re-route intercepted telephone calls, e-mails and faxes both from abroad and from inside Switzerland. Intelligence gathered thanks to the surveillance system is to be supplied to the Federal Police and the police forces of the Cantons. Defence Department officials, however, asserted that NATEL mobile phone communications inside Switzerland will not be intercepted.
The Chief of the Swiss Military Intelligence Service UNA, Major General Peter Regli, said that by setting up the system within the next 5 years, Switzerland was "somewhat belatedly" trying to catch up with foreign developments in the field of "information warfare".
When Kurdish demonstrators, responding to the arrest of PKK leader Öcalan, occupied the Greek embassy in the fancy Berne suburb of Muri, the Swiss Federal Police (Bundespolizei) apparently intended to intercept all mobile phone calls made in the wider surroundings of the embassy. The operation was intended firstly to identify all mobile phone users in the area and their conversation partners; and, secondly to intercept the calls of identified suspects and their presumed wirepullers. To this end, the Federal Police contacted the "Special Tasks Service" at the Federal Ministry of Environment, Traffic, Energy and Communications. This service operates as the connecting link between law enforcement authorities and telecommunication service providers. It must check in each case whether an authority is competent to order a surveillance measure and whether the suspected criminal activities justify interception.
The Special Tasks Service apparently did not hesitate to forward the request from the Federal Police to the service provider, Swisscom. It is technically possible to trace all phone connections in a defined area of the mobile phone net. However, as a by-product of the requested tracing measure, one would also have traced the communications of completely innocent mobile phone users in the larger surroundings of the Greek Embassy. As a rule, the tracing of telecommunication data as well as an ensuing interception measure must be authorised by the President of the Chamber of Accusation of the Federal Court. However, in "emergency situations", authorisation may be granted a posteriori.
In this particular case, Swisscom refused to transmit the data of mobile phone calls made in the Muri area during the occupation of the embassy. This decision is much to the credit of the largest telecommunications service provider in Switzerland. Indeed, if Swisscom had granted the request, the Federal Police would have had access to data of numerous innocent phone users, and not least of the embassies of Croatia, Belarus, and North Korea, as well as the residences of the ambassadors of China and Uruguay, all located in Muri, less than 2.5 kilometres away from the Greek embassy.
Sources: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2.2.99, 24.2.99; SonntagsZeitung, 8.2.99; Jane's Defence Weekly, 3.3.99.