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Switzerland files criminal complaint against ‘persons unknown’ over Crypto spying scandal

Image credit: Valerii Brozhinskii | Dreamstime

The Swiss government has filed a criminal complaint regarding the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) alleged use of a cryptography company as a front to spy on foreign governments’ secret communications.

The complaint against 'persons unknown' for alleged breaches of the law governing export controls follows recent reports on 'Operation Rubicon', which for decades involved the CIA and the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) spy services covertly reading other nations’ secret messages encoded with technology sold by Swiss firm Crypto AG.

Crypto AG, a company which specialises in communications and information security, was disclosed to be secretly jointly owned by the CIA and BND from 1970 until about 1993, with the CIA continuing as a sole owner until around 2018. With headquarters in the city of Steinhausen, the company was a long-established manufacturer of encryption machines and a wide variety of cipher devices.

The company has previously been criticised for selling 'backdoor' products to benefit the American, British and German national signals intelligence agencies, namely the National Security Agency (NSA); the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the BND respectively.

Although the outlines of Operation Rubicon, initially known as 'Operation Thesaurus', were known for years, new details about its scope and duration were made public last month by Swiss, German and US investigative journalists.

“The Office of the Attorney General confirms it has received a criminal complaint by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) [part of the Swiss Economy Ministry] dated February 2 2020 regarding possible violations of export control law,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

The attorney general’s office said they intend to review the complaint before deciding whether to open criminal proceedings, confirming a report by national newspaper SonntagsZeitung. Furthermore, a spokeswoman for Switzerland’s Economy Ministry confirmed that the complaint had been filed, but declined to elaborate further.

The technology that Crypto sold to dozens of governments - including those of Iran, India, Pakistan, Libya, Egypt, Chile and Argentina - had deliberate flaws for the spy agencies to exploit, or built-in backdoors, that made messages easily readable to US and German spies. In effect, those client countries paid millions to Crypto simply to be spied on.

Being a neutral country, Swiss authorities have said it could prove embarrassing for Switzerland if any investigation proves the government did not act on these allegations.

SonntagsZeitung said SECO, which is in charge of authorising exports of sensitive equipment, believes it was deceived into clearing the sale of Crypto’s machines and software and argues it would never have done so had it known of the scheme.

The Swiss government has appointed a former Swiss Supreme Court justice to investigate Operation Rubicon and is due to report back by the end of June, when the cabinet will be briefed. However, the pressure is mounting for the Swiss Parliament to launch its own investigation to find out who in Switzerland knew about the scheme.

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