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The Digitalization Division of Switzerland & Ethical Digital Development

A Proposed Strategy for the Digitalization Division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs

[Written in the framework of the Master of Advanced Studies in European and International Governance (MEIG Programme) of the University of Geneva]

By: Augustine Sokimi & You Chu


As a newly established thematic division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) in October 2020, the Digitalization Division advances Switzerland’s foreign policy in the area of digital development. The year 2021 provides a window of opportunity for ethical and responsible digital development in Switzerland, Europe, and globally. This paper considers the areas that the Digitalization Division should prioritise in its internal, regional, and global activities in advancing FDFA’s political strategies on digitalization. The paper builds on the prior “Digital Switzerland” strategy of 2016-20.[1] It further supplements Switzerland’s Foreign Policy Strategy for 2020-23 and Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-24.


i. Digital Response to COVID-19

To attain and maintain international confidence in Switzerland as COVID-19 contained, the role of digitalization in responding to COVID-19 must be given greater consideration and refinement.

In light of the grave situation in Switzerland, the Digitalization Division must escalate the promotion of the use of the SwissCovid App in improving contact tracing efforts.[2] It is imperative that the Digitalization Division work closely with the cantonal governments to ensure that the SwissCovid App for each canton is effective, accurate, and reliable. This will require a multi-stakeholder engagement between private IT companies, cantonal health authorities, hospitals and private medical clinics.

Furthermore, the Digitalization Division should advance Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping as a strategy for identifying and containing clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks.[3] The data collected at hospitals and private medical clinics may be used to map out areas which are heavily impacted by COVID-19 so that appropriate area-specific containment and eradication measures may be implemented accordingly. Areas could then be classified accordingly, with Green Zones as the least impacted areas, Orange Zones as the moderately impacted areas, and Red Zones as the areas of high prevalence requiring greater intervention and more stringent measures.

ii. Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

The Digitalization Division should lead internal collaboration and engagement with all relevant stakeholders in the development of digital technology and digital space. Greater collaboration will accelerate progressive development of digital technology and bolster federal research into digital space and security. The goal should be to secure partnership between the Federal Government, world-leading companies on technology research (e.g. artificial intelligence) based in Switzerland, and small-medium enterprises. The collaboration and resulting research and processes should target the challenges and priorities of digitalization in Switzerland, including ensuring the protection of human rights in digital space, territorial security, and safeguarding the rule of law.[4]

iii. Swiss Ethical Standards on Digitalization

The absence of an international framework to regulate digital space and digital data, places greater responsibility on the Digitalization Division to ensure that digital technology develops in Switzerland according to accepted ethical standards. It is essential that 2021 be used as a steppingstone towards developing such ethical standards, building on the Swiss Digital Initiative launched at the first Swiss Global Digital Summit in Geneva on 2 December 2019.[5]

The Digitalization Division should hold wide consultations both within Switzerland and abroad with civil society, experts, and the general public on what such ethical standards should be. It should then formulate a draft regulation on the ethical use of digital technology, which should be made accessible for public scrutiny, comments and consultations before being adopted into law. The regulation should be dynamic in nature subject to ongoing periodic reviews as they may become redundant if they are not modified and updated to correspond with further developments in digital technology. As a starting point, the following areas should be comprehensively addressed by the Swiss ethical standards on the development and use of digital technology: the right to privacy, data protection, cyberattacks and cybersecurity, combating hate speech, xenophobia and racism, misinformation, and propaganda.

iv. Digitalization in Policing

The Digitalization Division should intensify research into the use of digital technology to render policing safer and more efficient. Digital technology in monitoring the whereabouts of criminals and criminal activity, policing public assemblies, and gathering and sharing of intel will allow the Swiss police to optimise their operations with significantly less risk. This is relevant for domestic crime, as well as international crime, transnational crime, and terrorism.

Digital policing suggests a transition from traditional policing methods to more transformative technologies that will facilitate proactive policing i.e. getting there before the crime happens and digital investigation i.e. sharing of information in real time.[6] It does not require the police force to develop these technologies or “re-invent the wheel” but rather identify technologies that have been tried and tested in the private sector and incorporate their use in policing.[7]

As recently as October 2020, Geneva hosted a Digital Policing Conference with the objectives to: 1) define the concept of digital policing across the lifecycle of crime prevention, response and investigation; 2) understand the challenges associated with technological innovations and how the police can overcome these challenges; 3) identify new digital technological tools and understand the common pitfalls, risks and success factors for their implementation; 4) understand digital policing transformation through project and change management to maximise success of applying new technologies; and 5) apply digital technologies to local context within the police force.[8] The Digitalization Division should build on the outcomes of the conference and facilitate progressive development of digital policing within Switzerland based on the most recent research on effective and applicable technologies.


i. Safeguarding the Schengen Area and Free Movement of Persons

Switzerland is part of the Schengen area and has a bilateral agreement on the free movement of persons with the European Union. Accordingly, the Digitalization Division should intensify efforts to secure cooperation among Schengen member states towards upscaling digital technology for cross-border cooperation in policing, particularly in countering terrorism and transnational crime, including smuggling of persons, human trafficking, money-laundering, and drug trafficking.

The recent terrorist attacks in Austria and France demonstrate that terrorism remains a major security concern in Europe and efforts to counter-terrorism must be taken seriously and advanced with utmost priority. Accordingly, the investment in digital technology for cross-border policing to track terrorist cells and online terrorist networks is crucial. These efforts should not be approached in isolation but through a regional cooperative effort as the entire Schengen area remains vulnerable given the relaxation of internal border controls. Facial recognition technology and the biometric system should be improved and refined to track persons of interest and prevent terrorist attacks before they are executed. The sharing of intel and information on terrorist cells and networks should also be advanced and standard operating procedures developed to facilitate a coordinated cross-border response to terrorism within the Schengen area.

ii. The Council of Europe and Digitalization

As a member state of the Council of Europe, Switzerland should advocate for regional development in digitalization and corresponding regional ethical standards. As recently as 8 December 2020, the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) of the Council of Europe simultaneously adopted a feasibility study on the possible introduction of a mechanism for certifying artificial intelligence tools and services in the sphere of justice and the judiciary[9] and a roadmap of the Working Group on Cyberjustice for 2021.[10] The Digitalization Division should support such initiatives and work towards aligning Switzerland with efforts to accelerate research into regional digitalization. Switzerland must continue to add its voice to calls for greater consideration of the role of digitalization in facilitating regional cooperation in the Council of Europe towards protecting human rights and strengthening the rule of law.

iii. Digital Services Trade Agreements with Other Regions

The Digitalization Division should explore opportunities to promote and support Switzerland’s domestic industrial innovation and free trade on digital services through deepening bilateral and multilateral relations with trading partners in other regions, particularly with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The Digitalization Division should explore bilateral and multilateral agreements to facilitate cross-border digital services and policy support. In this regard, there are lessons that can be derived from the Digital Silk Road under China’s Belt and Road Initiative which Switzerland should seriously consider when adapting its priorities in improving the international trade of digital services.

The Digitalization Division should further prioritise developing relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by exploring avenues to connect with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) in order to increase the free flow of digital services, data-sharing and digital technological research.


i. Capitalise on International Geneva and Swiss Neutrality

“International Geneva”, as a platform for both public and private sector collaboration, can be channelled towards facilitating the implementation of Switzerland’s Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-24. The Digitalization Division should capitalise on “International Geneva” to garner greater international cooperation with private technology companies in improving its digital capacity and capability. Such cooperation must seek to accelerate the development of Swiss digital technology and infrastructure.

Switzerland must continue its host-state status and leading role in digital space under the long-standing tradition and foreign policy of “neutrality”, which lays the foundation for its broader and further influence at regional and international levels towards safeguarding Switzerland’s interests and values.[11] Swiss neutrality and impartiality, including in applying the existing rules on digital space, can be used to attract worldwide expertise specializing in digital space to establish their organisations in Geneva. This is consistent with Switzerland’s prerogative as an international bridge-builder and mediator for international dialogues.[12]

ii. Promoting International Digital Governance

The Digitalization Division must recognise the need for a legally binding international governance framework to ensure the development and use of digital technology in a manner that supports the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, reduces inequalities, brings people together, enhances international peace and security, and promotes economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.[13] The Digitalization Division should prioritise the facilitation of inter-state dialogue and discussion at the various international forums in Switzerland in order to revive efforts to develop an international digital governance framework and advance the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.[14]

iii. Capability-Building Support to Developing and Least Developed Countries

The Digitalization Division should continue the FDFA’s ongoing efforts to support digital capability-building in developing and least developed countries.[15] Such support includes the provision of digital expertise to develop digital infrastructure, upskilling local personnel through trainings, the provision of improved technological software and hardware, and project based development aid. The Digitalization Division should also provide expertise to developing and least developing countries to assist them in their efforts to overcome challenges that arise with increased digitalization, including technologically induced unemployment, gender discrimination on digital spaces, unequal access to new online markets, cyberattacks, and cybersecurity.


The activities outlined in this paper should be advanced by the Digitalization Division in the true spirit of diplomacy and international cooperation. The paper proposes a strategy that encourages widespread engagement and consultation in arriving at a holistically considered approach to Switzerland’s ethical digitalization domestically, regionally and internationally. It also encourages pursuing greater international solidarity and partnerships in facilitating an inclusive and adaptive response to the adaptive challenges of increased digitalization. The paper further targets areas of digitalization that Switzerland should prioritise domestically which will likely have implications on its foreign policy and are consistent with its leadership in regional and global digitalization.

[1] Swiss Federal Office of Communications, New Priorities for Digital Switzerland (accessed 05/12/20). [2] Swiss Federal Officer of Public Health, Coronavirus: SwissCovid app and contact tracing (accessed 14/12/20). [3] ESRI Swiss, COVID-19 Swiss GeoHub: Map - 24h (accessed 14/12/20) [4] FDFA, Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-24 (accessed 14/12/20). [5] PAEFFGEN Niniane, The digital world needs more ethical standards – launch of the Swiss Digital Initiative, DigitalSwitzerland, 12 September 2020 (accessed 14/12/20). [6] Deloitte, The Digital Policing Journey: From Concept to Reality Realising the Benefits of Transformative Technology, 2015 (accessed 14/12/20). [7] Ibid. [8] UNITAR, UNITAR-MANIATECH Digital Policing Conference (accessed 14/12/20). [9] CEJEP, Possible introduction of a mechanism for certifying artificial intelligence tools and services in the sphere of justice and the judiciary: Feasibility Study (accessed 14/12/20). [10] CEJEP, Roadmap and Workplan of the CEPEJ-GT-CYBERJUST, 8 December 2020 (accessed 14/12/20). [11] FDFA Communication, Promotion of International Geneva and Digital Self-Determination – Federal Council Sets Out Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-2024 (accessed 14/12/20). [12] FDFA, Geneva is to Become the International Capital of Digital Governance (accessed 14/12/20). [13] UN, Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation: the age of digital interdependence, 2018 (accessed 15/12/20) [14] UN, Secretary General’s Road Map for Digital Cooperation, 2018 (accessed 15/12/20) [15] FDFA, Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-24 (accessed 15/12/20)

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