The life of National Councillor Balthasar Glättli under surveillance – Interactive visualisation of data retention in Switzerland

All communications, including all telecommunications, within Switzerland are subject to data retention. This surveillance pertains to the whole population, regardless of any prior suspicion. In theory, what is stored is known. However, until now, there was no practical example so that the impact of what can be deduced from the stored data could be evaluated.

Swiss National Councillor Balthasar Glättli (Green Party) voluntarily submitted six months of some of his retained personal data, in order to visualize them. This experiment allows to grasp what intelligence services and law enforcement agencies call a «profile»: a general image of a person’s life. When does  Balthasar Glättli sleep and work? Whom is he meeting, and with whom does he regularly communicate? Where does he live and where can one meet him?

For 10 years, telecommunication and internet service providers in Switzerland have been required to record all their users› communication details. They record, for instance, participants, date, and duration of any telephone call, sender, recipient, and date of any email and text message as well as the location of any mobile phone. Service providers are to retain records for 6 months and deliver them to law enforcement on request. The record retention period is to be extended to 12 months while access is to be admitted to intelligence agencies. (Revision of the Swiss Federal Surveillance of Post and Telecommunications Act, SPTA [German: Bundesgesetz betreffend der Überwachung des Post- und Fernmeldeverkehrs, BÜPF], introduction of a new Swiss Federal Intelligence Service Act [German: Nachrichtendienstgesetz, NDG]).

Suspicionless retention of all connections, traffic, and billing records constitutes a particular serious interference with civil liberties. These measures affect everybody without any exception but interest in records of most parts of the general public remains hypothetical. Meanwhile attempts to prove positive effects of data retention have failed.

Authorities suggest data retention is a form of surveillance only affecting suspects retroactive to them being suspected. However, data retention is a form of comprehensive and preemptive surveillance of all users of telephony, e-mail, and internet services in the intent of using these records as necessary.

To understand what comprehensive insights data records offer into somebody’s life is difficult. Therefore an interactive visualisation of 6 months of data records traces out the life of Swiss National Councillor Balthasar Glättli: detailed location tracks, every single daily routine and his entire social network can be determined from his data records in all details.

This visualisation was coproduced by Digital Society Switzerland, OpenDataCity,  «Schweiz am Sonntag», and Arte. It may be embedded in any media product.

On April 8, 2013, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declared the EU Data Retention Directive invalid, effective immediately. The court judged the European data retention as disproportional and in whole incompatible with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Cause for the distinct ruling were lawsuits in Ireland and Austria against the countries national implementation of the European directive.

Digital Society Switzerland in February 2014 filed a motion to suspend any further data retention with the competent Swiss Federal Post and Telecommunications Surveillance Service (PTSS, German: Dienst Überwachung Post- und Fernmeldeverkehr [Dienst ÜPF]). In March 2014, Digital Society Switzerland had already petitioned the Federal Council of States to suspend data retention to no avail. Since the Swiss Federal Court has no legal authority in constitutional matters, the motion will be forwarded to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) if necessary. The ECtHR will presumably decide just as the ECJ since the same European basic rights are effected by the Swiss data retention.