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Swiss campaign against 'welfare detectives' gets support of thousands

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GPS tracking devices on cars; private detectives following suspects to the grocery store; secretly-snapped photos of people out to lunch with friends: Such descriptions sound like they come from a spy movie, but they are actually actions carried out by so-called "welfare detectives" in Switzerland, reported Deutsche Welle (Germany).

In an attempt to thwart suspected fraud in Switzerland's social welfare system, particularly among those claiming disability benefits, the country's parliament approved a law in March allowing for sweeping surveillance in cases of suspected fraud.

"This is an affront to rule of law in Switzerland," Dimitri Rougy told DW.

Rougy is part of a small committee of regular citizens who heard about the law and banded together to develop a campaign that demands the legislation be put to a popular vote.

The group has until early July to accumulate 50,000 signatures backing a referendum on the issue before it can appear on a ballot — a herculean task, but one they are willingly taking on, with the help of the internet.

"The online collection of signatures for initiatives and referendums changes the rules of the game for direct democracy," Daniel Graf told DW. The digital activist not only founded the political initiative website "Wecollect" ,where the campaign is based, but also is one of the referendum campaign's leaders.

What's in the law?
The law that Rougy and Graf oppose enables both state insurers and private insurance companies to hire private detectives to investigate cases of suspected fraud.

These detectives would be legally allowed to film, record audio and take images of the person they are investigating without getting permission from a court. Within the confines of the law, the use of drones would also permitted — even without court permission.

Insurance companies will, however, need to secure permission from the court to install GPS tracking systems on the cars of those they are investigating.

According to Swiss newspaper TagesWoche, the Swiss state disability insurance (IV) uses welfare detectives more frequently than private insurers. Across Switzerland, IV monitored 270 cases of suspected fraud in 2016 using detectives and uncovered abuse in two thirds of the cases.

Proponents of the law argue that it saves millions per year by cutting down on abuses within the system and that concerns about widespread surveillance are overblown, while those who oppose it argue that it amounts to a massive invasion of privacy.

Citizens band together
The referendum campaign against the law is unique in that it was launched not by a political party, union or NGO, as is usually the case, but by a small group of people who feared the impact of such a law.

Political activist Rougy and "Wecollect" founder Graf were joined by author Sibylle Berg, IT expert Hernani Marques and lawyer Philip Stolkin.

The seemingly disparate partners were united by two things — their opposition to the welfare surveillance law and Twitter.

"We made a plan and set a goal. If 5,000 people promised us that they would gather signatures, then we would officially launch the referendum campaign. We were overrun with approval and support — from all sides," Rougy told DW.

The law doesn't only target those receiving disability benefits, it also encompasses health, accident and unemployment insurance as well. With nearly all Swiss paying into the system and receiving some form of insurance benefits, all residential Swiss are affected.

"This is ultimately about the question of whether we want to live in a society of mistrust," he added.

Shaking up the system
Although support from major political parties is starting to roll in, the grassroots campaigners have already signaled a massive shift in Swiss politics.

In the nearly three weeks since their campaign launched, over 10,000 people have pledged their support online — downloading a PDF of the required signature form, printing it out and then mailing it in.

"I think it's important for Switzerland to see that as a small group without money or anything else, it's possible to push for change in Swiss politics," Rougy said.

He doesn't think the success of online campaigns will suddenly mean there will be more citizen-launched referendums, because they still require a mass mobilization of people on the ground and substantial funding. Still the support their campaign has garnered is a sign of hope for the team that Switzerland's direct democracy system is working.

"The referendum was introduced so that minorities and under-represented groups could defend against decisions made by parliament. Should this happen more often, it shows only one thing, namely, that Swiss democracy lives. And that's a good thing."

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

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