Surveillance Hangs Heavy Over Vienna

Surveillance Hangs Heavy Over Vienna

This article is a guest post from Rodney Yancey, who translated an article originally from Telepolis.

Privacy groups in Austria are gearing up. Austria is a small country in the EU, but privacy concerns are as pressing here as everywhere else.

It has been a while since citizens failed to prevent the Austrian government from enacting data retention, albeit not for lack of trying. The ensuing media circus yielded the country’s most popular online petition ever, which was ignored by Austrian law-makers. Since those days in March 2012, social and economic topics have dominated media and public discussion, with domestic privacy or civil liberties largely absent. Rare media coverage hinges on international privacy scandals – most Austrians are better informed about spying scandals and surveillance practices abroad than about how their own government spies on them at home.

Austria has a long and pioneering tradition when it comes to privacy law and good lobbying by NGOs. In 1999, VIBE (VIBE=”Association for Internet Users in Austria”) was founded, a society working on liberty concerns specific to citizens on the net. VIBE’s goals lists educating the public on encryption among common privacy demands. These goals include concerns on TTIP and a proposal for an internet tax – distribution of funds among authors and artists on the internet.

Many VIBE-members are active in other privacy and civil liberty organizations as well. Andreas Krisch, VIBE’s chairman, is also part of the privacy commission, a government body for privacy legislation. In 2002, Krisch co-founded the umbrella organization for European Digital Rights (EDRi). Past success includes a very visible and effective protest against ACTA, and activity for a think-tank named Forum Informationsfreiheit, a platform for freedom of information, i.e. the fight for more transparency in government organizations.

Thomas Lohninger has been fighting the fight and walking the walk since 2010. Lohninger is CEO at the Taskforce Data Retention (“AK Vorrat”). Since its inception, the organization has broadened its scope and works on general surveillance issues beyond data retention – in particular the incompetence exhibited by the country’s ministeries.

Ignorance and classification block inquiries

“The replies sent by officials confirm our worst expectation. Our ministeries reveal lack of transparency and giant gaps in their training. The minister of justice reports that he has no knowledge of an inquiry on government malware (“Staats-Trojaner”, “Trojan horse from the government”) in the course of trials. We have records that clearly show that in fact there has been such an inquiry.”

That is the conclusion to which Christof Tschohl, also active for the data retention taskforce, arrives after compiling replies to 43 inquiries to seven ministries, as well as parliamentary groups of Green Party and NEOS, a popular libertarian reform party. The report demonstrates that the current situation is unsatisfactory in terms of official attitudes towards anti-terror-laws, even the current anti-terror-laws.

Only a quarter of the questions were answered completely, another quarter not at all and another fifth was not answered with the excuse of state security. State security was even pleaded for inquiries involving legal protection of citizens.

New security law saves state from citizens

Rather than stopping the madness already, the Austrian security state has plans for eroding liberty even further. A new security law is about to be passed, and it looks like a voyeuristic dream by folks with a fetish for peeping, as the ten main points reveal. The question of legal protection is elegantly being swept under the rug.

AK Vorrat‘s verdict:

“The bill establishes only one post for questions of legal protection in the ministry for internal affairs, who has no access to records if some government pleads “national security”. The question of what consitutes national security is at the discretion of that same government body. In other words, the government has complete control over all its records and there is no right to appeal to anyone. There is no trace of independent parliamentary audit in the bill.”

The issue of privacy in Austria is deeply linked with the name of Erich Möchel, also called “the bedrock of the Austrian privacy milieu”. The man is a journalist, had a life as editor for the immensly popular “futurezone” digerati website, as a novelist and playwright. Erich Möchel is an avid member of a group of digital radio amateurs maintaining and researching ham radio internet for the people, by the people. The deed Möchel is remembered for, however, is the Quintessenz club, an organization awarding the annual Big Brother Awards in Austria, as well as the annual Linux Wochen (“Linux Weeks”).

Erich Möchel was one of three sleuths who became celebrity investigative journalist with their  Enfopol-Papers (the others being Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti and Duncan Campbell). Since Edward Snowden’s leaks, Erich Möchel has been educating the public on the leaks’ implications for Austria. He is a publisher of analyses of the capital’s surveillance structure, including maps and photos. All this serves as a haunting illustration of the extent of the city’s snooping.

Not just for big players, not just for NGOs

Privacy activism does not start or end with big campaigns or non-government organizations. During the course of the spying scandal involving the German Federal Intelligence Service, “the NSA’s most prolific partner”, which featured Austria as a main target, no lesser party than the Austrian government itself has pressed charges against persons unknown and demanded full investigation.

The rise of social media has given rise to Europe vs. Facebook. A man named Maximilian Schrems founded that organization in order to file a class action suit against Facebook — an initiative that has been awarded for its defense of civil liberties several times since 2010, including the “Privacy Champion Award” from the EPIC organization.

When it comes to privacy and civil liberties in general, monitoring progress and drawbacks in other countries is not a matter of the size of the country under scrutiny. In that field, political issues and government desires are virtually identical everywhere, and concerned citizens are best advised to learn from each other.


This article was published in May on Telepolis, a German
online magazine run by the Heise publishing house. Author of the original is German Bettina “Twister” Hammer, a regular contributor to Telepolis; translation by Rodney Yancey. With minor modifications to tone, text and links in order to accomodate a slightly different audience. Original article can be found here