Austria creates new agency with unprecedented surveillance powers
In the midst of the biggest surveillance scandal of mankind and after years of criticism about rogue secret agencies spying on politicians and the government bodies supposed to control them, Austria is planning to establish a new secret agency.
Austria’s draft state security law, “Staatsschutzgesetz”, grants new, far reaching surveillance powers while reducing oversight and transparency of the planned ten state security agencies that are tasked with fighting threats to the state and its public institutions.
If the proposed law passes, state security services will have the power to oblige companies and government bodies to hand over all available data, including sensitive personal information protected by other laws. This information is then stored for up to five years in a centralised database. International data exchange of personal information with other security agencies is explicitly encouraged. Authorisation for surveillance measures is not granted to target individuals but to target “groups” – a term which neither specified by the draft law nor the specific request. Entire population segments would be targeted by blanket mass surveillance, and innocent individuals would be added to such groups by decision of the agency without any regard towards necessity, effectiveness or proportionality.
While surveillance powers are extended, oversight is reduced. This reform also lowers the control mechanisms: instead of approval by a judge or attorney, the oversight is only carried out by the internal legal redress officer of the interior ministry. A system of parliamentary oversight does not exist in Austria.
This reform was drafted after the debate about returning Daesh fighters and the terrorist attacks of Paris and Copenhagen. During the consultation period, 18 major institutions (including associations of judges, lawyers, doctors, Internet providers, the evangelic and catholic church, the federal association or worker unions, the federal economic chamber, the constitutional service of the Federal Chancellor, the federal ombudsman, Amnesty International and the Austrian Working Group on Data Retention), heavily criticised the draft law. The Working group on Data Retention (AKVorrat.at) also launched a campaign under www.staatsschutz.at listing more than 11 000 signatures and four demonstrations in three cities against the proposal.
The draft law is scheduled to be voted upon in plenary between 13-15 October. Civil society is pressuring the Members of Parliament to amend the law in order to establish the necessary safeguards and transparency measures to bring it back in line with the constitution.
Petition against the planned State Protection Act
(Contribution by Thomas Lohninger, EDRi member Initiative für Netzfreiheit, Austria)