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Data protection chief criticises US

Washington has stepped up security at airports since the September 11 attacks Keystone

The head of Switzerland’s data protection commission says the United States’ war on terror is undermining personal privacy.

This content was published on July 1, 2003 - 14:18

Hanspeter Thür has called for tighter controls on the campaign against terrorism and for more money to safeguard individual rights.

He accused the Bush administration of pursuing a repressive policy which placed little value on data protection.

The unusually outspoken comments are contained in a new report to mark the tenth anniversary of Switzerland’s data protection commission.

In particular, Thür cited US requirements for incoming airlines to supply personal details of all passengers, including their religion, dietary preferences and credit card numbers.

This regulation was forcing airlines such as Swiss to break Switzerland’s own laws on data protection, Thür said.

He added that the measures being demanded by Washington reduced US commitment to data protection to the level of many developing countries.

A spokesman for the US embassy in Bern declined to comment on Thür's remarks.

Human rights

But the Swiss branch of the human rights organisation, Amnesty International, welcomed the commission’s report.

“Since the attacks of September 11th, the US has cared little for personal privacy,” Amnesty spokesman Jürg Keller told swissinfo.

“We’ve already said this, and we’re pleased someone else is saying the same thing.”

At a press conference to launch the report, commission spokesman Kosmas Tsiraktsopulos justified the criticism against Washington and denied that Switzerland opposed the war on terror.

“It’s not true that we are against fighting terrorism,” he told swissinfo. “We just want to have a constitutional situation where the state can do its job and, from the other side, the individual knows where his data is going.”

There should always be a balance between the right of security – which is also a constitutional right - and the right of privacy.”

Hi-tech threat

The report also expresses concern that new technologies may threaten the privacy of the individual.

Thür cited electronic insurance and health cards as potentially problematic, as well as new biometric methods of identifying people.

The latest mobile phones with inbuilt cameras should also be monitored, he said, because of the ease and secrecy with which pictures can be taken, and then sent on quickly to others.

The report was critical of the growth in unsolicited emails, and the lack of transparency among companies which share personal data such as email addresses and credit card lists.

The technical innovations of the last ten years have substantially increased the work of the data protection service, Thür said.

This meant there was an urgent need for more funding and more staff, in order to ensure that the service can do its job efficiently.

On a positive note, the report says that, over the last ten years, awareness among the Swiss population about issues of data protection has risen substantially.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The head of Switzerland’s data protection commission has sharply criticised the US led war on terror.

In a report to mark the tenth anniversary of the commission, Hanspeter Thür says the US is pursuing a repressive policy which places little value on individual rights of privacy.

The report adds that developments in new technology such as the Internet and mobile phones pose ever greater risks to data protection.

The commission says it needs more funding and more staff to do its job properly.

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