Switzerland votes: key facts about the social detective referendum

George Mills
George Mills - [email protected]
Switzerland votes: key facts about the social detective referendum
File photo: Depositphotos"

This coming Sunday, Swiss voters will vote on whether to accept changes to the social security law which give 'social detectives' extensive powers to observe people suspected of welfare fraud.


The changes were rapidly pushed through this spring with legislators arguing they were necessary to fight fraud and ensure trust in the Swiss welfare system.

But opponents on the left side of the political divide said the new rules represented a huge intrusion into the private sphere and gave so-called social detectives powers that should be assigned to the police and judiciary. 

Read also: How Switzerland's direct democracy system works

A group of concerned citizens then successfully launched a campaign for the staging of what is called an optional referendum – a provision of Switzerland’s direct democratic system which allows for a new or revised law to be challenged if 50,000 signatures can be obtained within 100 days of the passing of the legislation.

So who are Switzerland's social detectives? What are the issues in the referendum? And will the new law be adopted by voters?

'An overall lack of clarity'

The practice of Swiss government agencies deploying detectives to carry out surveillance of suspected benefit cheats is not new, although the overall number of cases is relatively small.

According to the Federal Social Insurance Office (FSIO), there were around 2,400 cases of suspected abuse of the Swiss invalidity insurance (IV/AI) scheme annually from 2009 to 2016, with about 150 investigations involving secret surveillance every year. For the Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (SUVA), there were around 400 cases of suspected fraud a year and 12 surveillance operations.

But despite the use of detectives being accepted practice, Swiss authorities found themselves forced to tighten up legislation on how these detectives carry out their work after the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) ruled in a 2016 case concerning a 62-year-old Swiss woman that there was “an overall lack of clarity of domestic [Swiss] law provision” in terms of the authorisation, supervision and duration of surveillance.

What are the specifics of the new law?

Under the revised Swiss law passed in March, welfare agencies and health insurance companies can carry out surveillance (or hire external specialists to observe) people suspected of cheating the system if they have "concrete indications" this could be the case.

Social detectives can film and make sound recordings of suspected benefits frauds in public places such as a street or a shop without receiving sign-off from a judge.

They can also make such recordings without judicial permission if a suspect is visible from a public place.

That means, for example, that they can do so if a suspect is on a private balcony that is visible from the street. In those cases, however, private detectives can not make use of ladders or drones or other material to assist them in carrying out recordings.

According to the government, detectives will need judicial sign-off to make recordings of the inside of people's homes, although opponents argue this is not clear in the legislation.

In addition, detective can also use GPS devices or to locate suspects if there is no other way to find them, but only with a court’s say so.

'A huge attack on privacy'

The new social detective law met with opposition from the beginning. Leena Schmitter, spokesperson for Swiss union Unia, told The Local earlier this year that the model was “a huge attack on privacy” and “cast suspicion on all unemployed people.”

Meanwhile, Socialist (SP) MP Barbara Gysi was quoted as saying: “This type of surveillance is all out of proportion. Suspected disability insurance cheats will be dealt with more harshly than terrorists.”

Referendum campaign launched 

After the law was passed, a group of private citizens rapidly pushed to have an optional referendum held.

In what was described as Switzerland’s first-ever social media referendum, the author Sibylle Berg, human rights lawyer Philip Stolkin and student Dimitri Rougy organised the collection of the necessary signatures with a month to spare.

The backers of the November 25th referendum argue possible benefit fraud is a matter for the police and the justice system and not for private detectives.

They say that while benefit fraud should be punishable by law, the new legislation does not respect individuals' rights to privacy.

Opponents of the revised legislation also say there is a great deal of uncertainty over where exactly social detectives will be able to film people, with questions marks over locations such as apartment staircases or laundry rooms.

The government says such locations are off bounds, but opponents of the new rules say a judge’s ruling on a future case could quickly see the boundaries shifting.

Last but not least, the backers of the November 25th referendum argue the law was rushed through in spring because of pressure from Switzerland’s powerful insurance lobby.

Observation of benefits cheats resulted in a saving of 320 million Swiss francs to the national Invalidity Insurance system alone from 2009 to 2016 according to the FSIO.

What the government is saying ahead of the vote

Defending the new law in the booklet which is sent out to voters ahead of every Swiss referendum, the Swiss government argues a balance had been struck between protecting the right to privacy and ensuring social insurance agencies could fulfil their duty to identity case of fraud.

The government also notes that anyone subject to surveillance had the right to appeal in the courts if they felt that surveillance has been illegally carried out.

Unlikely to succeed

Backers of the referendum admitted early on they were unlikely to succeed given 15 years of rhetoric about "fake disabled people" from Switzerland's right-wing Swiss People's Party.

Currently polling suggests the chances are very low indeed that voters will reject the new rules for private detectives. A gfs Bern survey carried out in the first week of November shows support for the referendum at just 38 percent, with 59 percent saying they would vote in favour of the law passed in March.

Read also: What you need to know about the 'Swiss law first' referendum



Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also