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TheIntercept_
Photo: ProtonMail
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Jenna McLaughlin
Photo: ProtonMail

A small email provider and its customers have mobilized to force the Swiss government to put its new invasive surveillance law up for a public vote in a national referendum in June. (See correction below.)

“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 Nachrichtendienstgesetz(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.

“In Switzerland, and overseas, no one really thought to ask the people,” Yen said. “The public opinion, especially from the young people, has shifted to pro-privacy.”

By gathering its users and teaming up with political groups including the Green andPirate parties, as well as technological and privacy advocates including Chaos Computer Club Switzerland and Digitale Gesellschaft Switzerland ,ProtonMail was able to contribute to the effort to collect over 70,000 signatures before the deadline. (See correction below.)

The new law is the first of two surveillance laws that have been circulating through the Swiss Parliament. The NDG law was fully passed in September, but can’t take full effect until after the referendum vote in June. The NDG would “create a mini NSA in Switzerland,” Yen wrote — allowing Swiss intelligence to spy without getting court approval. It would authorize increased use of “Trojans,” or remote hacking tactics to investigate suspects’ computers, including remotely turning on Webcams and taking photos, as well as hacking abroad to protect Swiss infrastructure. It would legalize IMSI catchers, or Stingrays, which sweep up data about cellphones in the area.

The second law, known as the “BÜPF,” might come up for a vote in the Parliament’s spring session, but may be revised or delayed. The BÜPFwould expand the government’s ability to retain data for longer, including communications and metadata, as well as deputize private companies to help spy on theirusers, or face a fine. “What I have heard from insiders is that they will reduce its scope now that they know we have the numbers to also force a vote on that law,” Yenwrote in an email to .

ProtonMail, created by scientists and engineers with know-how in particle physics, software, cryptology, and civil liberties, provides unbreakable end-to-end encryption by default to its users for free — making it easy for ordinary people to protect their communications and preserve their anonymity.

With end-to-end encryption, only the person who sends the message and the person who receives it can access the content; not even the company can see what was written. Encryption protects transactions on the internet, so that criminals can’t read messages, steal credit card information, or impersonate others.

The Swiss surveillance bill does not compel ProtonMail to decrypt its users’ communications, so if the Swiss intelligence service forces itto hand over data, all the intelligence servicewill get is gobbledygook. But ProtonMail still feels the measure threatens Swiss privacy — something the company hopes to defend, regardless of its bottom line.

There are some strong political currents in Europe, as in the United States, beating strongly against encryption and privacy — which law enforcement says prevents them from accessing evidence with a warrant. Lawmakers, government officials, and law enforcement agencies alike have been pushing for a way to gain access into uncrackable end-to-end encryption. Scientists collectively agree this is a bad idea, and would threaten the security of the internet without actually helping anyone catch bad guys.

As of November, 14 countries had passed new laws bequeathing more power to intelligence agencies to spy. France’s upcoming surveillance law, though it will not mandate backdoors in encryption, allow law enforcement more surveillance powers, including to spy on phone calls and emails without a judge’s approval and install key logger devices on suspects’ computers to retrieve their passwords. The Chinese government passed a law in December VIDA Foldaway Tote Blue Knobs by VIDA cEGRtVz
companies to turn over encryption keys, and the Cuban government has the power to approve all encryption technology before it hits the market. In Bahrain, where dissenting political speech is condemned, encryption is outlawed for “criminal intentions.”

The U.K.’s Investigatory Powers Bill, or “ Snooper’s Charter ,” as many call it, could compel companies to help the government circumvent encryption if it becomes law, according to privacy advocates familiar with the draft legislation.

Other countries’ laws might affect ProtonMail’s business overseas, as well as major American companies offering end-to-end encryption, like Apple.

According to Yen, issues of national security and privacy aren’t usually brought to a vote by the entire country. Nationwide referendums aren’t all that common — they happen maybe five or six times a year, usually when the government wants to build something expensive and people don’t want to pay for it. Forcing a referendum is a lengthy, pricey process, he says.

But now, the Swiss want to be an example for the rest of the world by “pushing to make data a cornerstone of the Swiss economy,” he said. “When you talk about data privacy, all our data goes online — we have to find a way to secure it. At the end of the day this privacy comes as a result of security.”

The same fight is brewing in the U.S., where people might have to be more creative and forceful to make their opinions heard. “ProtonMail went out to get signatures, worked with political parties, the Green party, the Pirate party. In the U.S., maybe with non-mainstream political groups, with the support of young people, and a few of the technology companies — there’s a real chance,” Yen said.

“A couple months ago we thought this referendum was totally impossible. Now here we are.”

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Timothy Burke

Earlier this month , CNN’s Brian Stelter broke the news that Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner or operator of nearly 200 television stations in the U.S., would be forcing its news anchors to record a promo about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.” The script, which parrots Donald Trump’s oft-declarations of developments negative to his presidency as “fake news,” brought upheaval to newsrooms already dismayed with Sinclair’s consistent interference to bring right-wing propaganda to local television broadcasts.

You might remember Sinclair from its having been featured on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight last year , or from its Versace Black Leather Gold Charm Top Handle Satchel Shoulder Bag 9uarWX
, or perhaps because it’s your own local affiliate running inflammatory “Terrorism Alerts” or required editorials from former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn, he of the famed Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to mention Jewish people. (Sinclair also owns Ring of Honor wrestling, Tennis magazine, and the Tennis Channel.)

The net result of the company’s current mandate is dozens upon dozens of local news anchors looking like hostages in proof-of-life videos, trying their hardest to spit out words attacking the industry they’d chosen as a life vocation.

Not that any of it matters to Sinclair, which, with the help of a friendly federal government, is about to swallow up another 40 television stations—increasing its reach and its lead over competitors like Hearst and Scripps. The script, as transcribed by ThinkProgress based on the KOMO (Seattle) version, reads:

Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…

(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.

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