According to Swiss media this week, Swiss soldiers are ordered to stop using WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram and instead use a domestic messenger. The rationale given was data security.
According to Swiss media, commanders and chiefs of staff got an instruction in late December alerting them of the new guidelines. Army employees shall henceforth use the Threema messenger, which was developed in the United States, for both official and private communication, including chats between soldiers and their families, according to the command.
The instruction contains an explicit ban on other apps: “all other services are no longer permitted,” media with access to the content of the email reported. However, it is unclear if there will be any sanctions for those who do not stop using WhatsApp or other foreign messengers.
The army hopes the troops will “set an example,” as they are “encouraged to communicate consistently via Threema.”
The army will also reportedly cover the cost of downloading the domestic app – 4 Swiss francs ($4.35). Annual fees collected by the company are reportedly to be paid by the army as well.
The recommendations apply to everyone in the army, including new conscripts and those returning for refresher training, military spokesman Daniel Reist told AFP. Switzerland has compulsory military service for all male citizens aged 19 and deemed fit for service.
The move was prompted by concerns over data security, the army spokesman told local media. Threema is subject to Swiss law and compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, unlike foreign apps.
US-based apps such as WhatsApp and Signal are covered by the US CLOUD Act, which allows the US authorities to access data held by American app operators even if it is stored outside of the country. The US can also demand that companies hand over user information through a legal request. Telegram, in this case, could be subject to an order as well, as long as it serves American customers.
“Since the company [Threema] is based in Switzerland, it is not subject to the Cloud Act like American companies,” Reist said.
In 2019, India called Facebook and WhatsApp a “crucial source” for hostile intelligence gathering, and called on people in the military to refrain from revealing to much personal information in the messengers, and to even deactivate their accounts.
Last year, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it will develop a smartphone and mobile apps for military personnel stationed at bases.
App-related issues have also plagued the US military. After an American startup published a worldwide fitness heatmap in 2018, US bases and patrol routes throughout the world were compromised, not by a message, but by a fitness tracker.