Success Story: A win on Austrian surveillance legislation
The security debate in many countries shows an alarming trend towards restrictions of fundamental rights that liberal societies have codified in the past centuries. Particularly in the field of surveillance, recent legislation often goes beyond what has been deemed constitutional by courts and lacks any fact-based justification as to how those measures are supposed to prevent or mitigate serious crime. Advocacy groups rarely achieve a victory in this debate. Hence, it is worth taking a closer look at a recent example from Austria where such legislation was prevented by EDRi member NGO epicenter.works.
In January 2017, the Austrian government agreed to a “security package”. The proposed legislation spanned over several seemingly unconnected areas from the legalisation of government spyware, restrictions of the right to assembly, real-time CCTV systems, a centralised database for registered license plates (piggybacked on existing legislation for license plate tolls), IMSI catchers, a prohibition of anonymous pre-paid SIM-cards, and the arrest of people who pose “potential threats” before convictions or even charges.
Epicenter.works published an analysis of the government agreement on the day of its release and started a campaign called “surveillance package”. In the course of seven months, 10 out of 12 proposed measures were abandoned. This is how epicenter.works reached these outstanding results in its campaigning.
Separating the security debate from the surveillance spiral
Terrorism in Europe is much like a wasp trying to destroy a china shop. The wasp alone can never achieve its aim, but if people react with panic, the result will be destruction.
The hard truth is is that modern terrorism with cars and self made bombs can never be completely avoided. Political decisions are rarely guided by facts and analysis of previous attacks to reduce the chance of future incidents (due to the political need to propose “something” to reassure the population). Instead, they rely on the assumption that increased surveillance automatically leads to more security. In an effort to stress that this is a fallacy, epicenter.works coined the term “surveillance package” and made it clear that these reforms are unlikely to bring about a higher level of security. By the end of the campaign, this wording was picked up not only by the whole opposition, but also by media, which was a great success.
The “surveillance package” proposed by the Austrian government had the same central weakness as most recently proposed surveillance measures in Europe: their complete lack of justification in quantifiable criminological measurement. Part of the “surveillance package” campaign was to define an “objective security package” with measures that are actually adequate and important for security – such as multilingual police and better police training – none of which includes more surveillance powers. This builds on epicenter.works’ attempts to create a scientific concept to evaluate anti-terrorism measures.
When a government restricts the fundamental rights of its citizens, the burden of proof always lies with the legislator as to why those restrictions are efficient, necessary, and proportionate. Questioning the security benefits of the proposed laws helped tremendously to undermine them as ineffective and purely opportunism-driven surveillance legislation.
Combine jurisprudence, technology and design in one team
From the first draft of the government’s work program to the proposed legislation epicenter.works provided an in-depth analysis from a legal and technical perspective. The complex analysis was complemented by single page synopses of important questions and infographics. Three press conferences, eight demonstrations in six cities, and thousands of tweets, videos, and images, as well as countless discussions with politicians and other stakeholders followed. The outcome was a combination of policy-driven and campaign-driven approaches that had great impact.
Make the many voices heard
For the first iteration of this campaign epicenter.works developed a new telephone tool that allowed citizens to subscribe to daily calls with their representatives. In a second stage, the campaign publicised the parliamentary consultation of the proposed legislation to a wider public thereby eclipsing all previous consultations threefold with a total of 18 094 responses, crashing the consultation website. In the final stage, all 6 350 public statements were analysed and visibility given to the arguments of institutions like the Austrian high court, the lawyers’ association, and the Red Cross.
The main lesson to take away from this is that one size doesn’t fit all. The “surveillance package” campaign was a success thanks to the diversity in methodologies, flexibility to react to new circumstances, and a multidisciplinary team of experts, grassroots campaigners, and media strategists. However, the most important detail that allowed this success was reframing the discussion away from surveillance and towards a broader security debate. In that new framing, privacy advocates will be able to propose more effective and fact-based solutions that do not rely on surveillance.
Surveillance package campaign (only in German)
Requirements for a comprehensive surveillance footprint evaluation (only in German)
(Contribution by EDRi member epicenter.works, Austria)