OPINION: Switzerland’s respect for privacy has benefits but it also harms the country

The deep-seated respect for personal privacy in Switzerland translates into practices that are sometimes at odds with fairness and democracy. Thanks to this blind spot, criminals are protected, tax evasion is facilitated, and journalism is stifled, argues Clare O’Dea.

A person on a computer
Switzerland has strict privacy laws. But do they go too far?

This hallmark of Swiss culture goes far beyond financial matters. The sanctity of citizens’ “Privatsphäre” (personal privacy) has shaped the justice system and media reporting, as well as everyday social interactions.

There are some potential benefits for ordinary law-abiding citizens, especially in the area of data. But privacy provisions often protect those with something to hide. We can start with the big one – banking secrecy.

The demise of Swiss banking secrecy was celebrated or mourned in 2018, depending on your perspective. That was the year when Switzerland first took part in the automatic exchange of banking information with foreign tax authorities, as spearheaded by the OECD.

But this change only applied to non-resident customers of Swiss banks in the countries participating in the automatic exchange system. More than 90 countries, including the world’s poorest and most corrupt economies, are not yet included due to lack of legal or IT infrastructure. Without proof of wrongdoing, their authorities have no way of checking on citizens’ Swiss bank accounts.

Overall, we’re still talking about a large client base from outside Switzerland. Almost half (47.4 percent in the latest Banking Barometer) of the 8.8 trillion francs in assets under management in Switzerland belongs to foreign clients.

Meanwhile, Swiss customers still enjoy most of the old protections of the original 1934 Banking Act, under which it is an offence for bank employees to reveal account information to third parties. The penalty for sharing information is high – up to five years in prison or a steep fine.

Swiss francs

Swiss francs. Photo: Pixabay

Since 2015, the same legal restriction has also applied to journalists who get hold of stolen bank account information. This is why Swiss media were unable to participate in the investigation of the “Suisse Secrets” data that emerged in 2022, exposing unsavoury clients of Credit Suisse.

Switzerland is ranked second in the latest Financial Secrecy Index compiled by the Tax Justice Network. Interestingly, the United States is in first place.

READ ALSO: Switzerland remains top of ‘financial secrecy’ as US rises to second

The self-declaration-based Swiss tax system has built-in leeway, where lying by omission in your tax return is not a crime, as long the potential tax owed is under 250,000 francs. Government plans in 2017 to tighten the criminal code for domestic tax offenders had to be abandoned because of the backlash. 

Privacy for criminals

Moving away from money, the most baffling example of the Swiss prioritising privacy can be seen in crime reporting. There is no public record of criminals’ names. Neither the police not the courts will name a defendant or convicted criminal. The media are generally obliged to follow suit.

Not to be vindictive, but I’ve always taken it for granted that public shaming should be one of the consequences of committing a crime. It is in most other jurisdictions but not in Switzerland. It seems that personal interest here takes precedence over public interest.

Take a recent case reported by the NZZ newspaper in which a male university professor secretly filmed students living under his roof. In the guise of being a generous mentor, he invited female students to live in an apartment in his house, where he had installed hidden cameras.

There were at least 10 victims over several years. When the young women found out, the impact was devastating. They went to the trouble of cooperating with the police and going through the long process of the trial.

And the result: the professor, who kept his anonymity, was fined a few thousand francs and is still working in Switzerland. Ironically, the reputation of a male criminal is clearly worth more than the violated privacy of 10 women.

As the Swiss Press Council reminds members, even “a murderer and his relatives, who are affected by the reporting of a trial, have a right to protection of their privacy, regardless of the heinousness of the crime committed”. 

Silver lining to privacy culture?

If there is any silver lining to the Swiss privacy culture, it could be in the realm of state surveillance. According to the constitution, every individual has a right to privacy in their private life and in relation to their telecommunications and mail. People also have the right to be protected against data misuse.

All surveillance requests must go through the courts and prosecutors are obliged to notify the target of surveillance, who then has the option to appeal through the courts.

The encrypted email provider Proton Mail, for instance, which traces its origins to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where many of its early team members worked, deliberately chose Switzerland as its base in 2014.

“When we investigated the legal considerations about where to establish our growing service, it became clear that Switzerland was in fact a hospitable location for a tech company focused on privacy,” Proton states on its website.

In addition, a new data protection law comes into force in September of this year, designed to align Swiss law with European Union GDPR legislation. The law imposes new obligations on companies with regard to the collection or misuse of personal data.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. If there is one area which badly needs more privacy applied in Switzerland, it is recruitment. Job applicants are still advised to include their civil status and children, including ages, in their curriculum vitae. It would be nice to see that sexist trap consigned to the bin once and for all.

Member comments

  1. This is a fascinating reexamination of privacy. Clare O’Dea has taken a concept I always think of as positive and shown me how it can be distorted to protect criminals in several different ways. And, at the same time, there are areas of Swiss society where privacy hasn’t gone far enough, as in the example of job applications. This is an article that really makes me think, as so many of Ms. O’Dea’s pieces do. Thank you!

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From condoms to vaccines: The most controversial rulings by Switzerland’s highest court

The Swiss Federal Court, the highest judicial authority in the country, has ruled on some highly contentious issues over the years.

From condoms to vaccines: The most controversial rulings by Switzerland’s highest court

Before we get to actual cases, it is important to understand how Switzerland’s justice system is set up.

There are different court levels.

When people file their cases with the legal system, their first contact are district courts, which group together judiciary authorities by local areas.

Many Swiss towns are too small to have their own courts, so a district court is just that — a court that covers several neighbouring communities.

If, say, you become involved in a civil lawsuit, a divorce case, or any kind of litigation or dispute, the case will be first be heard at the district court.

Most often, its rulings are final.

However, if you are not happy with the verdict of your district court, you can appeal it within 30 days, at which point your case will go to the higher judicial level, that is, the cantonal court.

Each canton has its own high court — Switzerland’s second most important judicial entity hierarchically.

Besides criminal cases, cantonal high courts hear civil claims, and there are also courts on cantonal level for administrative cases.

The next is the Federal court, the highest judicial authority in Switzerland.

Headquartered in Lausanne, it is the final instance on all appeals against decisions of the highest cantonal courts, as well as the three other federal courts, which deal with criminal, administrative and patent cases, respectively.

This chart shows how the judicial system is organised in Switzerland. 

READ ALSO: What you should know about Switzerland’s courts

This means that by the time a case (that is to say, the appeal) comes before federal judges, it has already been ruled on by lower courts.

This is what happened in these three recent controversial cases as well.

The condom

You might think that taxpayer-funded federal court should not spend its valuable time (and public money) on a case involving a condom, but it has done so nevertheless.

As Swiss media reported, on September 14th, the highest court ruled on a case that has been heard in the lower courts in Zurich since 2017.

It involved a young man (19 at the time), who took off his condom during sex with an 18-year-old woman, without, however, informing her or asking for her consent to do so.

This practice is called ‘“stealthing’ in English.

The woman filed a complaint in a district court of Bülach (Zurich) and, after a series of rulings and appeals through higher courts (see above), ended up before the federal tribunal.

The case took so long because it had many twists and turns.

Stealthing is not punishable by Swiss law, which is why both the district and cantonal court acquitted the young man

The Federal Court  also acquitted him, but reassessed the case from the perspective of sexual harassment. That ruling had stuck, and the young man must now pay a 2,500-franc fine, in addition to 7,200 francs in court costs.

Forced vaccine

In the most recent case, which The Local reported last week, the Federal Court sided with the man who wanted his ex-wife to be forced to vaccinate their two children against measles.

The mother, an anti-vaxxer, had refused to do so, and the long-winded battle between the parents, which made its way through the lower courts, eventually landed in the federal tribunal.

As it had done in several previous similar cases when parents didn’t see eye to eye about vaccinating their children, the court followed the  public health guidelines, which are clearly in favour of childhood immunisations.

Therefore, judges sided with the father, giving the mother an order to immunise her children against measles.

Parents can be made to vaccinate their children court ruled. Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

Assisted suicide

In another recent case, from June, the court acquitted a Swiss doctor, Erika Preisig, who was charged with homicide for helping a mentally ill patient die in a Basel assisted suicide clinic. 

Previously, predominantly people suffering from physical ailments could benefit from voluntary suicide, which is legal but well-regulated in Switzerland.
However, Preisig was charged because she had violated the previous Federal Court ruling, from 2006, which required a psychiatric evaluation on the patient before helping them die.

In June, the court overturned its old decision, finding that although Preisig had not obtained a psychiatric report, she had studied the medical records, had intensive discussions with the patient, questioned relatives, and obtained a second opinion. The mentally ill person was understood to have made a well-considered decision and was capable of judgement. 

The Federal Court had therefore confirmed that Preisig could assume, even without a psychiatric expert opinion, that the patient had a permanent wish to die, as she suffered from an incurable, permanent, severe mental impairment.

READ ALSO: What to know about Switzerland’s latest court judgement on assisted suicide


While obtaining Swiss citizenship is a long and complicated process, and rejections at communal level are often made arbitrarily, the Federal Court had sided with applicants on several occasions.
For instance, in 2018, the court ordered the commune of Trimmis in canton Graubünden to grant Swiss citizenship to an Iranian refugee who had lived in the community for 30 years. 

It reversed a ruling made previously by the lower court, which sided with local authorities who denied the man the right to become Swiss.