Geneva, Switzerland

Photo by Mario A. P. -> https://flic.kr/p/rM3PnC General facts:
Population508.774. (40% immigrants)
Average incomeSources vary but the average monthly income is 4,778.35€ (5232 CHF / $5703) according to costofliving.site
Inequality(See Diagnostic Local de Sécurité 2020: Partie consacrée aux partenaires communaux, at p 13)
DiversityClose to 190 nationalities (2014) [pg. 2]
Current governmentAdministrative Council 2020-2025 (five executive members, each responsible for a department, including a mayor with a more extensive role)

Geneva is a city of monumental international influence. It is the birthplace of international humanitarian law (i.e. the Geneva Conventions) and the meeting place of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), as well as a financial and diplomatic centre with a huge political and economic role in the world. It is arguably the most influential global city due to the overwhelming presence of institutions, meetings, and congresses. Geneva hosts most of the world’s international organizations (39 International Organizations and 431 NGOs in total), including the UN, Red Cross, WTO, WEF, and WHO. Within Switzerland, it is the second most influential and populated city after Zurich.


Locally, Geneva is the capital city of the canton of Geneva (GE). There is a distinction between the city itself and the canton; the latter comprises the city and its inner suburbs (which are separate municipalities, as shown in figure one). Concerning the administration of the city, there is both the Municipal (local) Council and the Grand (cantonal) Council. In Switzerland, cantons are constituents of the Swiss Confederation and semi-sovereign states.


Municipalities of the canton of Geneva (GE).

The city is hugely multicultural due to the diversity of its population. The official language is French, though German, Italian, and Romansch also hold official status. English is also widely spoken, as well as Portuguese and Spanish (by migrant communities). The cultural identity of the city - and canton - remains Romande (French-speaking), however. This identity is supported by institutions, including Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) and the University of Geneva.

Quick facts:

  • The quality (and cost) of life is (in)famously high
  • The incumbent mayor, Frédérique Perler (2021-22) is a representative of Les Vertes (ecologist/environmentalist party)
  • Geneva - and the Romandy region - has historically been Protestant (Calvinist). Among the native population and in the professional classes, Protestants are in the majority. More broadly, however, Geneva is no longer the “Protestant Rome” and Catholics make up half of the population
  • Geneva features in the Tour de Romandie, an annual cycling event and preparation for the Tour de France

Social Contract and the City

What seem to be the main physical security questions in the city? (pick-pocketing, organized crime, covid-related, etc.) Are there security issues in the city? which ones?

  • According to the Diagnostic Local de Sécurité 2020 - a report published every three years regarding general public security trends in the canton of Geneva, as well as those specific to each of its communes - the main concerns are:
    • Street harassment (in the canton generally): 71.7% of women aged 15-34 report having experienced street harassment in Geneva in the last 5 years
    • Drug, conflict and begging problems (more specific to the city).
    • Pick-pocketing and robbery
    • 32.8% of residents report feeling unsafe, particularly in areas where social inequalities are most severe, social cohesion more fragile, and conflicts most frequent (victims of street harassment, pick-pocketing or robbery in particular) [pg. 8]
  • Serial large-scale crimes are committed by French “bandits”. News articles suggest that the perpetrators are largely from Lyon.
  • Due to Covid, there has been a significant drop in certain crimes in the canton, and in car accidents between March 16 and April 27, 2020. During this same period, police interventions related to noise and health measurements increased. By the end of April the police noted that all criminal activities had resumed and the interventions for noise were still high.
  • Due to the increased risk of domestic violence created by lockdowns, the Cantonal government implemented measures to provide safe spaces, e.g. hotel rooms turned into emergency accommodation for victims of domestic violence and their children, as well as for perpetrators. 
  • In spring 2020, there was an increase in robberies and assaults mainly in downtown Geneva. In July of that year the “Thief and Street Assault Group” was created to respond to this situation in the neighborhood of des Grottes. This group had six inspectors from the judicial police and was planned for three months, with the possibility of renewal if necessary
  • A survey conducted by the Department of Security, Employment, and Health (DSES)  identified future security measures desired by residents of Geneva. As well as prevention and social cohesion, measures cited were surveillance cameras, the removal of foreign offenders, and public lighting. Women and those aged 15-35 preferred social cohesion and public lighting, while seniors (39% of those 65+) favoured surveillance cameras [pg. 10].

How is inclusion in the city? Are there groups that seem more excluded or included than others? Is this a function of law? or a function of broader more complex dynamics? Did this become more apparent with Covid?
  • Creation of a delegation in charge of monitoring of their housing (including Covid measures), socio-educational support, security, healthcare, and migration
  • Plans to establish a cantonal process for managing the residence situation of unaccompanied minors
  • Creation of a mechanism to help the voluntary return of MNAs to their country of origin or provenance
  • According to Le Temps:
    • MNAs are increasingly associated with street delinquency and crime
    • Determining their age - and the appropriate judicial measures - is difficult due to their lack of documentation. While some are truly young, unaccompanied, immigrants, others may be professional criminals posing as such in order to take advantage of lighter sentencing.
    • 30% of the activity of the Tribunal des mineurs is devoted to handling such cases; their prosecution is however a contentious public debate due to their vulnerability
  • However, anecdotal reports (see here and here) explain that some MNAs have official papers and/or want to go to school and start regular lives. They may be treated badly by those in charge of their care (the SMPi - child social services), including being given inadequate food and access to healthcare

Who are the main providers of security services in the city to different communities? And the facto? (Police, military, private security services, gangs, church, etc. i.e. it may be that in a city like Geneva private security services play an important role in protecting diplomats.)
  • In Switzerland, security is primarily the responsibility of the cantons. In the case of the city of Geneva, there are two complementary police forces:
    • The Municipal (local) Police, responsible more so for civil interventions, e.g. citizen coexistence issues
    • The Cantonal Police, responsible for the implementation of public policies related to security and crime issues, divided into five divisions:
      • Police-secours (emergency police)
      • La police internationale (responsible for airport security, and the security of people, property and sites in connection with diplomatic, consular and international activities, including migration)
      • La police judiciaire (responsible for crime investigation)
      • La police proximité (local police, responsible for maintaining order)
      • La police routière (traffic police)

  • “Fedpol” (the agency of the state) has jurisdiction in the city in some cases, e.g.:
    • Security measures for the protection of senior members of the Swiss government, federal judges and officials, and people subject to protection under international law (diplomats), as well as the security of federal buildings and foreign diplomatic missions accredited to Switzerland
    • Fedpol coordinated the security for the Biden-Putin summit
    • Fedpol assesses whether and to what extent dignitaries, members of parliament, and foreign guests of state, are at risk. Based on this assessment, the cantonal and municipal police services take appropriate measures

  • Private security providers include AS-Securité, Arma Group, Global Securité, and Sentinel Protection. The extent to which these groups’ services are used (by either private or public actors), and their role in the interaction of different dynamics in Geneva, are unclear
    • AS-Securité: individual protection/bodyguards, site surveillance (of public buildings, schools, institutions, exhibits, and museums), control of protests and ‘urban incivility’ (including ‘audacious solutions’), as well as emotional support for clients
    • Arma Group: security and surveillance for events and sites (public or private, commercial and industrial)
    • Global Securité: (armed) guards, security for events, patrol services, etc.
    • Sentinel Protection: similar services
  • Securiton AG provides alarm and security systems nationally
    • In the SBB line connecting Geneva City with Annemasse (France), their Geneva office supplied and fitted 115 CCTV cameras for the five new Swiss stations and 13 emergency exits. Cameras were hooked up to the Swiss Federal Railways' LAN; this computer network transmits the images to the railway company's IPS video management system provided by Securiton's Bern office.
  • Concordat sur les entreprises de sécurité (implemented in GE May 2000, last modified April 2014).
    • Signed between the cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Valais, Neuchâtel, Genève and Jura, to set common rules governing the activity of security companies and their agents, and to ensure the inter-cantonal validity of authorizations granted by the cantons. [art 1]
    • Governs the following activities, carried out in the public domain or in the private domain, either by staff or by means of adequate installations (in particular central alarm offices): a) the surveillance or custody of movable or immovable property; b) the protection of persons; c) the security transport of property or valuables. [art 4]

Digitization of Security in the City

Does the city government have a local program of using digital technologies to provide security services? (Cameras, data analytics, local tapping etc.) Is there data on how the plan is being implemented?

  • “Smart canton” strategy: plan to become a smart city (part of the Cantonal Economic Strategy 2030), including implementation of an infrastructure based on IoT, collection of data, and the participation of public, parapublic and private actors (inc. start-ups, SMEs, multinationals), as well as citizens.
  • The Federal and Cantonal governments are adapting their laws and regulations in order to implement the Système d’information Schengen (SIS), which aims to facilitate the cross-border coordination to improve the security in the Schengen area.
  • In Dec 2020, Mauro Poggia, State Councilor of the Department of Security, Employment and Health (DSES), on behalf of the Council of State, and Olivier Jornot, Attorney General, on behalf of the judiciary, signed the “Convention Politique criminelle commune (PCC)”. This document (5th ed.) sets the framework for the interventions for 2021-2023 to address common crimes. The seven cornerstones of the program are:

  • combating violence;
  • combating cybercrime;
  • safety of mobility;
  • combating economic delinquency;
  • combating human trafficking, illegal migration and undeclared work;
  • effective implementation of sanctions and coordination of police forces;
  • prevention and detection

  • Video Cameras
    • In 2013 Pierre Maudet (then State Councilor of the Dept. of Security) proposed a pilot program to install 29 cameras in a neighborhood (Les Pâquis) to address security concerns (store robberies and some drug issues).
      • Les Pâquis was said to be “harbor[ing] a high level of tort and criminal activity”[12/57]. Maudet noted that the project should have a positive impact on safety - the first concern of merchants and hoteliers - and that video protection would reassure tourists. [13/57]
      • During the legislative debate at the Grand (Cantonal) Council, the mayor of Geneva, M. Pagani, said that the Municipal Council had not been consulted, that Pâquis’ structural problems are not going to be solved by installing cameras, and that it is necessary to address these directly to improve the security of the area [22/57
    • In 2019, the Grand Council considered a motion by the fire department to have access to the system of video surveillance of the police (approved in 2020).
      • In the debate, deputy M. Froidevaux explained: “the motion was ahead of its time. It could be effective if the same system set up in Munich were available. He specifies that in Munich all private or public video surveillance systems are connected to a police station, which allows all images to be viewed in real time. This is a political debate since the experience of video surveillance in Pâquis had already aroused a lot of cautions.” [12/24]
    • There have not been many news articles on the topic since, although based on the annual reports of the Préposé Cantonal à la Protection des Données et á la Transparence (PPDT), other municipalities of the canton have installed cameras.
    • This website shows the location of some of the cameras in the city (442 are listed in total), as well as links to relevant articles.

  • Electronic tags
    • The use of electronic tags as part of the criminal system has been proposed at the federal level, e.g in cases of domestic violence and as an alternative to short prison sentences.
      • In 2020, the Federal government proposed these for individuals in administrative detention waiting for deportation; their use is at the cantonal authorities’ discretion
    • Under the new law against terrorism (MPT), Fedpol can use electronic tags as preventive measures against potential terrorists. [Art 23q]

  • Drones
    • According to a national survey by the University of Neuchâtel on the social acceptance of drones, the public opinion of the use of drones by the police or army is more favourable than that of private use. The authors estimate the number of drones (for both uses) in the country at 22,000 and propose that these offer possibilities for surveillance and control, raising ‘questions ranging from the fate of the private sphere to the risk of terrorism’. 87% of respondents perceived drones as mobile surveillance cameras and claim the right to be informed when being observed. 72% would approve of a ban on observation of public spaces. Respondents were more inclined to accept drones used for security and protection purposes.
    • In July 2015, there were reports of Air Force drones flying over - and observing - the city at night. These were army drones being used by the Customs Service to fight cross-border crime, which happens several times a year. This collaboration between Customs and the army began in 2006 and necessitated the revision of the Customs Law, which gave a legal basis to the use of drones for surveillance by border guards.
    • According to an article in April 2020, drones were used to spot infractions of Covid measures, specifically gatherings during lockdowns.


What is the municipal authority regarding the provision of physical security? (is the police department attached to the local government? How is the police regulated? etc.)

How do national and local laws regulate (in general) the use of digital technologies to provide public security (by the government?) (See this article about Clearview AI to understand the question a little more)
  • In the city, there are various public actors in charge of security (i.e. municipal, cantonal, and federal police). In the same manner, there are three levels of regulation for the use of digital technologies, which depend on the authority responsible for their installation and use.

Municipal
  • Règlement relatif à la vidéosurveillance en Ville de Genève (May 2011, last modified in Sept 2016): by-law enacted to guarantee the fundamental rights of users and employees of the City of Geneva.
    • Applies to video surveillance systems operated by the municipal administration. [art 1]
    • Any installation project, or modification made to existing installations, must also first be authorized by the Administrative Council. The Council does not have to justify its refusal of authorization. [art 2]
    • Regulates the “Vidéosurveillance Commission”, the main responsibility of which is to issue a notice intended for the Administrative Council concerning the legitimacy of any video surveillance system of the municipal administration, current or future, regarding ethical, legal and technical criteria. Any modification made to existing installations must also be the subject of such prior notice. [art 4]
  • The municipal council must approve the installation of any cameras in public spaces. The commune must present a report to justify installation, including descriptions of exact locations and scope of cameras; data encryption measures; permissions from those that own and operate the buildings concerned (including notice from the dept. of education in the case of primary schools); operating hours and retention periods of recordings, and lists of individuals authorized to view them (and the viewing methods). [See here for more info]

At the Cantonal Level
  • Loi sur l'information du public, l'accès aux documents et la protection des données personnelles (Oct 2001, LIPAD; RSGE A 2 08): regulates the right of access to public documents and the processing of personal information by public authorities in the canton.
    • Documents to which an overriding public or private interest is opposed are exempt from the right of access established by this law, particularly those that would “endanger state security, public security, Switzerland's international relations or confederal relations” [art 26 (2.a)]
    • In the case of video surveillance programs, the law foresees two situations:
      • Under the general authorization to process personal information, which has to be necessary for the “legal performance of tasks” of the institution. [art 35]
      • Public authorities can create and operate a video surveillance system if this “is proper and necessary to guarantee the safety of people and property in or in the immediate vicinity of public places or assigned to the activity of public institutions, by preventing the commission of attacks or depredations and by contributing to establishment of offenses committed, if applicable.” [art 42 (1.a)]
        • In this case, the existence of the system must be adequately communicated to the public; the scope of the monitoring must be limited; and in the performance of their activities at their workstation, members of the staff of public institutions should not enter the field of vision of the cameras or, failing that, they should be made immediately unidentifiable by an appropriate technical process. [art 42 (1.b-c)]   
    • The public authority in charge of a particular video surveillance program must limit the number of people that have access to the video footage, and must provide a list with the name of those people to the PPDT. [art 42 (3.a)]
    • The data collected using video surveillance can only be shared with third parties in two restricted cases [art 42 (4)]. As opposed to the general rules for sharing other personal information [art 39].
    • The Préposé Cantonal à la Protection des Données et à la Transparence (PPDT) is the authority in charge of monitoring the application of the law. [Titre VII. Chapitre II]
  • Public authorities must inform the PPDT of any program that aims to collect personal information, including the installation of video cameras, and a list of the (limited number) of persons who can access the recordings. [pg 27-28]

At the Federal Level (fight against terrorism)
  • Loi fédérale sur les mesures policières de lutte contre le terrorisme (MPT): federal law submitted to vote 13th July 2021 and approved by 56.6% of the popular vote.
    • General objective: to increase the powers of the federal police (fedpol) to prevent terrorist attacks.
    • Gives the police new powers to prevent terrorist attacks and propaganda by implementing preventative measures for those identified as potential terrorists. These individuals would be subject to: surveillance; limited movement (barred from leaving the country); limited contact with certain persons that are deemed to belong to terrorist networks, or other potential terrorist and certain individuals; interviews and regular obligatory appointments with the police, and placement in a designated residence (source)
    • According to the law, any person qualifies as a “presumed terrorist” if they are suspected “on the basis of concrete and current indication that he/she will carry out terrorist activities”[art 23e (1)]
    • The law defines terrorist activities as “actions intended to influence or modify the state order and likely to be carried out or facilitated by serious offenses or the threat of such offenses or by the propagation of fear.” [art 23e (2)]
    • Some of the preventive measures can be ordered for children from age 12. Others, such as house arrest, from age 15. [art 24f]
    • One such measure authorized by the law is the use of electronic surveillance (e.g. electronic tags) and tracking of the mobile phones of “potential terrorists.” [art 23q]
    • All digital surveillance measures are to be decided by fedpol, without the agreement of a court. [art 23f]

How do national and local laws regulate (in general) technology companies that develop and sell digital technologies related to security services?
  • The regulation regarding television and radio - as well as other forms of diffusion of production and information based on public telecommunication - is the competence of the confederation (art 93 of the Swiss Constitution). The confederation is also competent for regulation in terms of criminal law and criminal procedure (art 123 of the Swiss Constitution). Most of the regulation happens therefore at the federal, rather than cantonal, level.
  • Providers of security services must consider if the services they offer fall within the scope of the Telecommunications Act.
  • Concerning telecom surveillance and lawful interception, competent regulation is under the Federal Act on the Surveillance of Post and Telecommunication (SPTA) and corresponding ordinances. The regulation mainly separates providers into two categories on the basis of whether they operate a network infrastructure or are simple electronic providers (art 2 b and art 2 c SPTA).

Have there been local conversations (or scandals) about the potentially harmful impacts of these technologies in the city? in the country?
  • In 2012-2013 there were a few news articles highlighting or questioning the effectiveness of video cameras. Likewise in 2013 a report on ethics of the use of video cameras was published by the PPDT - around the same time when the pilot project to install cameras in Les Pâquis was discussed (and approved).
  • There have been discussions regarding the details of video surveillance programmes. Officials distinguish between “vidéosurveillance” and  “vidéoprotection”:
    • In 2021, the Chief of the municipal police of Thônex (a municipality of the Canton), explained the technical difference between the terms:
    • The pilot programme in Les Pâquis was an example of “vidéoprotection” (first proposed by Pierre Maudet in Sept 2012)
    • In this same (2021) interview the Chief of the municipal police states: “In Geneva, it is only in Les Pâquis that there are vidéosurveillance cameras. Everywhere else, it’s vidéoprotection.”
    • A news article from 2014 states “don’t call it vidéosurveillance anymore. Political authorities prefer the term vidéoprotection.”
  • Concerning the use of army drones by border control, Hans-Peter Thür, federal data protection officer, has repeatedly called for a legal framework according to the Tribune de Genève. He argues that “these reconnaissance flights are not limited to monitoring illegal entries into the country... [a] multitude of citizens with nothing to be ashamed of would also fall under the lens of drone video cameras.’

In the Country

Issue Spotting

What are key issues in the city’s social contract?

  • Geneva’s International/Cosmopolitan Image vs. Local Dynamics
  • Official reports of social cohesion are at odds with on-the-ground reality, whereby different layers of immigrants interact and convolute the social contract, especially for the city government. Balancing public policy with Geneva’s human rights reputation can be difficult.
  • These layers can be described as such:
  1. Documented immigrants within “International Geneva”
  • Diplomats and their employees, for whom the immigration process - and their subsequent status - varies from “regular” immigrants and which may lead to different living conditions.
  • A special immigration regime exists for employees of the international Missions. Instead of having to request work permits from the Cantonal Office of Immigration, the Suisse Mission at the UN distributes "cartes de légitimation"
  1. Immigrants with proper documentation
  • There is a large number of immigrants employed under a work permit (permit B) or with permanent residence (permit C). To acquire these permits, there are different requirements for EU and non-EU citizens
  • Some live in the city of Geneva; others live in a different Municipality or Canton, and some live in France, crossing the border every day to go to work - the commuter area of Geneva (the "métropole lémanique") encompasses other cantons (Vaud and Valais), and “Grand Genève” extends also into France (parts of Haute-Savoie and Ain)
  • EU nationals: in 2013, Pierre Maudet - head of the Depart. of security and economy (DSE) - highlighted issues such as cross-border crime (i.e. the French border) and wage “underbidding” in the job market due to the presence of European workers
  • Immigrants with humanitarian visas. Information concerning such individuals in Geneva specifically has not been found, however, for example, Fondation Surgir settles female victims of honour crimes from Jordan, Israel, and Palestine in Lausanne, a city which is part of the metropolitan area of Geneva and of the “Greater Bern-Geneva Area” (an economic region)
  1. Immigrants without proper documentation
  • “Sans-papiers” form part of the local workforce but are hired and paid “under the table”. According to an article in the Tribunal de Genève, most members of this group come from Latin America, followed by Asia and Africa. The women often work as baby-sitters and cleaning maids. The men may work as maids, construction workers, kitchen-staff in restaurants, or gardeners
  • “Mineurs non accompagnés” (MNAs), young immigrants - mainly from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco - who do not qualify for asylum

  • The Rights of Certain Groups Privileged Over Others
  • The interaction between overprotection of diplomats and lack of protections for other immigrants can be problematic from a labor law and human rights perspective because the unequal power relationship has in some cases led to exploitation [pg. 140].
  • Unlike “regular” immigrants, employees of diplomats are granted special visas, linked directly to their employer. This residency status may be bound to performing domestic services for a diplomatic household [pg. 25]. Domestic workers are usually from vulnerable groups (migrant women from the Global South) and their employers’ immunities render them powerless if abused or exploited [pg. 5-6].
  • This scenario - as well as human trafficking and exploitation more generally - is a significant phenomenon in European countries, including news reports of cases in the city. It is particularly striking in the case of Geneva due to its status as a diplomatic hub and centre for human rights.

  • Plans for Digitization of Security
  • Plans may incorporate underlying social dynamics and reflect the agendas of powerful actors
  • To identify potential terrorists for preventative purposes, fedpol will most likely rely on the use of algorithms to analyze huge amounts of data to classify people according to their level of “danger” (see above: campaign against the Loi fédérale sur les mesures policières de lutte contre le terrorisme (MPT)
  • Which groups are protected and which are monitored? Does this map onto the distinction between ‘vidéoprotection’ and ‘vidéosurveillance’? Between those who are visible and those who are hidden? Why are other social issues not at the fore, such as spotting victims of trafficking in the streets?
  • Online/official information is elusive and our hypotheses concerning this topic are currently speculative; interviews may provide more insights

Key technology companies providing smart city tech to the city?
  • Digital Solutions provides digital services (including security services) to cantonal and public sector clients; has an office in Geneva

Key decision-makers in government
  • Members of the administrative council, particularly the mayor
  • Pierre Maudet, a controversial Swiss/French politician who has held public office in various capacities, including as Mayor of Geneva (2011), President of Geneva Government (2018), and head of the Dept. of Security and Economy (DSE). Currently Chief Digital Transformation Officer at WISeKey (private cybersecurity and IoT company). He was also a lead figure in Operation Papyrus

Key civil society actors?

Based on the above questions, who seem to be crucial actors to talk to?
  • François Dermange, professor of ethics at the University of Geneva and ex-member of the advisory commission on data protection (including vidéosurveillance plans)
  • Guillaume Barazzone, Pierre Maudet (see above), and Christophe Bobillier were present at the 2014 press conference concerning the pilot video surveillance project
  • Public officials who signed the open letter in support of the work of Caravane de Solidarité
  • Stéphane Werly, Jean Busché and Florian Erard of the Préposé Cantonal à la Protection des Données et á la Transparence (PPDT)
  • Nicolas Tavaglione, political scientist and philosopher at the University of Geneva
  • Jean Busché and Florian Erard, authors of the report of the use of video surveillance cameras in Geneva (Canton) in 2013
  • Sophie Roselli, famed ex-investigative journalist who has reported on surveillance (including Les Pâquis) and P. Maudet in particular (see ‘l’affaire Maudet’)
  • Sébastien Faure, author of an article in the RTS concerning immigrants who were unpaid by their employers (diplomats)
  • Syndicat SIT, an organisation that helps defending workers without legal status
  • Jasmine Caye, former president of the Swiss Centre for the Defence of Migrant Rights (CDSM) who continues to help migrants and is author of blog articles on migrant rights for LeTemps
  • Hans-Peter Thür, federal data protection officer and critic of the use of drones for surveillance
  • Frédéric Bernard, professor of Public Law at the University of Geneva (concerning the MPT law)
  • Lukas Hafner, Amnesty Switzerland's campaign coordinator for technology and human rights (as above)