A small email provider and its customers have almost single-handedly forced the Swiss government to put its new invasive surveillance law up for a public vote in a national referendum in June.

“This law was approved in September, and after the Paris attacks, we assumed privacy was dead at that point,” said Andy Yen, co-founder of ProtonMail, when I spoke with him on the phone. He was referring to the Nachrichtendienstgesetzt (NDG), a mouthful of a name for a bill that gave Swiss intelligence authorities more clout to spy on private communications, hack into citizens’ computers, and sweep up their cellphone information.

The climate of fear and terrorism, he said, felt too overwhelming to get people to care about constitutional rights when people first started organizing to fight the NDG law. Governments around the world, not to mention cable news networks, have taken advantage of tragedy to expand their reach under the guise of protecting people, even in classically neutral Switzerland — without much transparency or public debate on whether or not increased surveillance would help solve the problem.

But thanks to the way Swiss law works — if you get together 50,000 signatures within three months of the law passing — you can force a nationwide referendum where every citizen gets a say.

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