Little joy for Big Brother


Überwachungskameras in Genf, 2007. / Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi

Is more security possible only at the cost of less privacy? Many citizens don’t agree.

The Swiss are particularly sceptical about state intervention in their private sphere. In Switzerland, only 38% of those asked believe that surveillance technologies should be used routinely by the state. The European average, on the other hand, is 54%. This is one of the results of ‘SurPRISE’ (‘Surveillance, Privacy and Security’), a survey organised by the European Commission across nine countries to investigate the relationship between modern security technologies and our basic rights as citizens. Some 2,500 people, chosen randomly, offered their opinions on the use of modern surveillance technologies in public spaces and the Internet. In Switzerland, the Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS held a discussion forum in three different language regions in conjunction with the SurPRISE survey.

A north-south cleft

The survey shows that the value assigned to one’s private sphere is very dependent on one’s own sense of security. In countries where people feel safer, they’re more averse to the use of modern technologies to monitor the population for security purposes. There is also something of a cleft between north and south. In Denmark (92%), Norway (90%), Switzerland (84%), Austria (81%) and Germany (73%), those approached feel particularly safe, whereas the general sense of security in Spain (49%), Italy (43%) and Hungary (31%) is far less pronounced, meaning that their citizens have fewer objections to state control.

This trend can even be seen within Switzerland itself. Here it is the German-speaking Swiss who feel the safest and are most opposed to state surveillance, followed by the French- and then the Italian-speakers. Internationally, an average of 50% feels that those with nothing to hide should also have nothing to fear from being monitored; in Switzerland, however, 64% rejected this notion.

In political debate, it’s often assumed that citizens accept the equation: ‘more security = less privacy’. But in fact people don’t swallow that trade-off quite so easily. This doesn’t surprise the project coordinator, Johann Čas. "If we take a more comprehensive view of security, then privacy is an integral component of it. After all, the concept of data protection and protection of the private sphere was introduced precisely to prevent the misuse of power and the indiscriminate exercise of state authority".

The results of the survey in these nine countries are now being analysed in detail. The Swiss report will be ready by late September and will then flow into the overall European evaluation that is to be presented in November in Vienna. "The results should offer politicians a solid foundation for drafting legislation", says Čas, "because ultimately it’s the politicians who have to look at what’s technologically possible, and then decide how much of it they should actually implement".

(From "Horizons" No. 102, September 2014)


Communication division