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Swiss voters reject digital ID law due to data privacy concerns

Lawmakers will likely have to revise the law to save the national digital ID program

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Swiss voters rejected a proposed national law for a digital identity after a referendum fueled by privacy concerns, writes SwissInfo. The new digital ID measure would have allowed the central government to control and license an identity data verification system run by private companies. In January, Swiss civil society groups had lobbied against the proposed law and collected enough signatures to force a referendum.

Yet, while the decisive vote, with 64.4 percent against, shows popular dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the initiative, it is likely to only delay the process as opponents still agree that a digital ID is needed.

Switzerland has made several attempts at introducing a national digital identity but to no avail. The main reason for the delayed implementation seems to be that the nation is not part of the European Union and therefore does not have to adhere to data regulations such as Europe’s GDPR. This allowed lawmakers to designate private companies to handle sensitive data for each of the cantons, Switzerland’s regional authorities.

GfS Bern Research Institute Political Scientist Urs Bieri saw the vote as a strong signal of the public’s disapproval of the government’s reliance on private contractors. “Mistrust in private companies was dominant and helped to tip the vote.”

In contrast, supporters of the digital ID law emphasize the need for private contractors to help the government handle the burden of IT operations and resources for the program. Furthermore, proponents argued that it would be impossible for the central government to run the digital ID program on its own.

After the vote, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter urged parliament and critics of the measure to return to the drawing table to avoid a standstill of Switzerland’s digitization efforts. “We have no choice and must work towards a new solution, even if it takes several attempts,” she added. “It is key for Switzerland to catch up with other countries when it comes digitalization.”

Whether or not the law can survive in its current form remains to be seen. What is clear at this point is that the central government needs to revise its plans to ensure voters that their data is handled safely and responsibly. The issue will likely be picked up soon as the pandemic continues to raise the demand for remote and touchless authentication methods to access vital government services.

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