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Omnisec
Omnisec was a manufacturer of voice, fax and data encryption equipment, based in Dällikon (Switzerland). The company was established 1 in 1987 by Dr. Pierre Schmid, a former employee of Gretag (later: Gretacoder, GDS and SafeNet). The company was initially based in Regensdorf, the hometown of Gretag, and had acquired the sales rights of Gretag's cryptographic equipment for the international governmental market, along with the ownership of some Gretag patents.


Based in neutral Switzerland, Omnisec was not bound by export restrictions, and was able to sell its products anywhere in the world. The company was successful for next 25 years – with no less than 54 employees on its payroll – and became one of the most trusted crypto-companies in the world, selling its voice, fax and data encryptors to governments, armies and intelligence services.

 Omnisec cryptographic equipment

By 2016 however, it gradually became clear that the world had lost interest in proprietary Swiss encryption technology for a number of reasons. First of all because the customers — mainly small countries who could not afford to develop their own encryption equipment — faced declining budgets caused by developments on the oil and copper markets, and secondly because of the increasing pressure from powerful state actors, to provide backdoors in the ecryption products, justified by the War On Terrorism [5]. 2 On 21 February 2018, Omnisec filed for liquidation.

On 25 November 2020, the Swiss SRF television program Rundschau revealed that, like its major competitor Crypto AG, Omnisec had been under the control of the American intelligence services CIA and NSA and had been selling manipulated (backdoor-ed) equipment to foreign governments and armies and even to customers in Switzerland [10].

  1. Pierre Schmid was the first director of OmniSec. The first owner of the company was Urs Ingold.
  2. Another reason for the decline of orders, could be the democratisation of cryptography. With the ever increasing power of modern personal computers, the development of strong encryption had come within the reach of countries and companies that had a modest budget.

History
In 1987, the Swiss manufacturer of cryptographic equipment Gretag AG, decided to split off its business unit that sold cipher machines to foreign governments and armies. Althoug the business unit had been profitable over the years, the owner – Ciba-Geigy – felt increasingly uncomfortable with the secretive nature of the business, and with the pressure from the intelligence community.

Gretag had been established in 1943 by Dr. Edgar Gretener, and became particularly known for its wide range of colour image processing equipment for the printing industry. In addition, the company produced and marketed the famous Eidophor large screen projector, and also a wide range of high-end encryption devices.

In 1946, Gretener started the development of cipher machines for the Swiss Army, some of which were co-developed by the Swede Boris Hagelin, with whom he had a short-lived joint venture. Hagelin later founded his own company in Zug (Switzerland), and started trading as a competitor in 1952 under the name Crypto AG.

After Gretener's unexpected death in 1958, the company was taken over by CIBA Holding (now: Novartis), who expanded the product range and production capacity in the following years. And although the crypto-business was a highly profitable one, it was overshadowed by Gretag's printing business. In addition to this, there was the constant pressure from foreign intelligence services to take control over the company [8].
  
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In 1987, it was decided to split-off the business unit that was responsible for the sales of cryptographic equipment to foreign governments and armies, and sell it to the new company Omnisec AG, that had been founded especially for this purpose [2][3]. Omnisec took over the existing customer base, and acquired the sales rights for all Gretag cipher machines. It also took over some of Gretag's patents and the production rights for most of Gretag's crypto portfolio.

The new Omnisec was owned by Urs Ingold, and would be lead by Dr. Pierre Schmid, a former employee of Gretag. Schmid had left Gretag in 1978 to work for Standard Telephone und Radio AG (STR) in Zürich, the Swiss subsidary of the American multinational ITT concern. Approx. 10 Gretag employees were allowed to make the switch to Omnisec, which was originally based in Regensdorf, the hometown of Gretag. The company later moved to Dällikon, just west of Regensdorf, where the large four-story building shown in the image above had been erected.

In the following years, the company successfully sold its equipment to governments in a number of countries, but remained small in comparison to its main competitor Crypto AG. According to the company itself, it was small enough to operate 'under the radar', and claimed that they had never been influenced by (foreign) intelligence services. By 2016, it gradually became clear that the world had lost interest in expensive high-end Swiss encryption products, and sales figures began dropping. In February 2018, the company closed it doors and filed for liquidation [5]. Interestingly, this came exactly at the same moment as competitor Crypto AG was dissolved.

 Omnisec encryption systems
 Omnisec on Google Maps


Compromised
For a number of years, Swiss investigative journalist Daniel Stern of the weekly magazine WOZ, had been looking into the backgrounds of Omnisec [6] and had his doubts about the way the company was run and where its capital came from, although the smoking gun was never found.

In February 2020, German investigative journalist Peter F. Müller, with German Television ZDF, Swiss Television SRF and American newspaper The Washington Post, revealed that Omnisec's main competitor – the Swiss company Crypto AG (Hagelin) – had been owned since 1970 by the German intelligence service BND and the American CIA, in a secret operation known as RUBICON. Crypto AG had been selling weakened equipment (i.e. devices with a backdoor) to more than 150 countries [8], despite being based in neutral Switzerland. It was also disclosed that, after the BND had left the operation in 1994, the CIA had purchased two other crypto companies in Europe.

In March 2020, these revelations led to a parliamentary investigation 1 into the role of the Swiss Government in Operation RUBICON, that would be carried out by the Geschäfts­prüfungs­dele­gation (GPDel). 2 When the GPDel published its first report on 10 November 2020, it was revealed that another (unnamed) Swiss company had been selling rigged crypto equipment as well [9].

On 25 November 2020, the Swiss SRF television program Rundschau revealed that the unnamed company was Omnisec AG, and that for many years it had been under control of the American intelligence services CIA and NSA. Omnisec had sold manipulated equipment (i.e. devices with a backdoor) to governments and armies worldwide, and apparently even to Swiss customers [10].

 English translation and resume by Peter Koop (off-site)

Controversy
In relation to the above, it is worth noting that both the initial owner of Omnisec, Urs Ingold, and the first director, Pierre Schmid, are mentioned in the CIA documents about Operation RUBICON, as being well-known by the American intelligence community, whatever that means [8].

Another name that turns up in relation to Omnisec, is Ueli Maurer, Professor at the ETH in Zürich, and between 1988 and 2015 technical advisor at Omnisec. Although he previously denied it, he now confirms that he was approached by the NSA in 1989, but had turned them down [10][11].

Further suggestions that he and/or his colleages might have cooperated with the intelligence services, are found in the Operation RUBICON documents [8]. In 1993, shortly after release of Crypto AG sales representative Hans Bühler from an Iranian prison, 3 the Swiss Bundespolizei (BuPo) investigated the allegations that Crypto AG equipment might have been rigged by foreign intelligence services. Swiss military officials subsequently informed the CIA that they had:

"the ability to ensure that the official results of any
investigation will show no manipulation of the gear"
They also informed the CIA that, should the investigation be subcontracted to the ETH in Zürich, they could handle four of the five cryptomathematicians who could become involved in the investigation. In other words: the ETH was in their pocket.

  1. Not to be confused with a Parliamentary Inquiry, which is a stronger measure.
  2. English: Swiss Delegation of Management Commissions.
  3. In March 1992, Bühler was arrested in Iran on dubious grounds, and was interrogated three times a day for nine months. He was released on 5 January 1993, after a bail of US$ 1,000,000 had been payed.  More

Last known address
  • Omnisec AG
    Rietstrasse 14
    8108 Dällikon
    Switzerland
References
  1. Omnisec website (now disfunct)
    Visited January 2015.

  2. Gretag AG, "Leitfaden" zur Info-Weitergabe am 29.7.87
    Memorandum about the transfer of cipher equipment to OMNISEC AG (German).
    29 July 1987. #CM301765/A.

  3. Gretag & Omnisec, Announcement to customers and agents
    29 July 1987. #CM301765/B.

  4. Crypto Museum, Gretag AG Patents
    Complete overview and correspondence regarding Gretag Patents 1943 - 1990.
    Gretag Archives, Crypto Museum #CM301767.

  5. Marcel Gamma, Omnisec: Schweizer High-Security-Anbieter wird liquidiert
    Inside-IT website. 23 May 2017

  6. Daniel Stern, Das Kapital aus den Antillen
    Die Wochenzeitung (WOZ), Nr. 49/2013, 5 December 2013.

  7. Daniel Stern, Die zweite Firma
    Die Wochenzeitung (WOZ), Nr.08/2020, 20 February 2020.

  8. Crypto Museum, Operation RUBICON
    February 2020.

  9. Fall Crypto AH. Bericht der Geschäftsprüfungsdelegation der Eidgenösseischen Räte
    Official report of the GPDel (in German language), 2 November 2020.
     English translation and resume by Peter Koop (off-site)

  10. Rundschau, Wirtschafts-Spionage? Die Geheimdienstaffäre weitet sich aus
    SRF Television, program Rundschau, 25 November 2020.

  11. Daniel Stern, Professor Maurer und die NSA
    26 November 2020.

  12. Adrienne Fichter et al., Das innerste Auge
    Republik AG, 26 November 2020.
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