Following the attack in Manchester, some political groups fought for complete government supervision over instant messaging. WhatsApp messenger especially. The Social Democratic Party of Austria and Austrian People’s Party pushed for increased government oversight far before the Manchester attacks. But the recent attacks add ammunition to their agendas.
And now the country faces a true constitutional crisis—deliberating whether or not increased surveillance would protect citizens from acts of terror.
The director of the Federal Office for Constitutional Protection firmly believes that terrorism is an immediate threat. Peter Gridling, the aforementioned director and so-called “chief constitutional expert” told the public “we can not sleep peacefully at the moment.” He claimed a terrorist attack in Austria was imminent.
Throughout 2016, Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP) paved the way for a bill that he believed would prevent or impede terrorist communication. “If terrorists use Messenger, we must be able to listen to this communication,” he explained at a Committee on Internal Affairs debate. Austrian officials faced criticism for aggressively pursuing means that allowed them a greater level of invasion into the lives (and messages) of private individuals.
Many attempts failed. Last year, too, Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter (ÖVP) backed a similarly invasive bill. Invasive to the degree that the backlash it carried caused him to back off. He is currently working on a “similar” version of the bill that he claimed would be better. Who the bill would be made better for—the people or the government—was not truly clarified.
On May 20, Brandstetter told the ministers of justice from five European countries that Austria lagged behind Germany. “Germany has gone further, as regard to the possibilities for monitoring suspected terrorists, for example, in Internet monitoring,” he said. (One of the first identified pieces of state-sponsored malware in Germany was identified as Backdoor:W32/R2D2.A) Brandstetter told the other Justice Ministers that “the issue of internet crime – from bitcoins to darknet – requires a European-level coordination, a rule set by the EU.”
The recent Manchester attacks fueled the arsenal and drive of politicians in Austria. The Constitution, in a sense, allows for the protection of the Constitution itself—along with those protected by the Constitution. “The Federal Office for Constitutional Protection and the Fight against Terrorism (BAT) protects constitutional institutions of the Republic of Austria and their ability to act,” the government explained. “The core tasks of BAT are to combat extremist and terrorist phenomena, espionage, international arms trafficking, trade in nuclear material and organized crime in these areas.”
Johannes Jarolim, an SPÖ spokesman, was reportedly surprised by the statements from officials in Austria. He said that the ball landed in the vice-chancellor’s court. Eliciting memories of the “federal trojan” the government proposed, The Standard wrote:
“This could be problematic. It is currently technically almost impossible to spy on the encrypted communication of Messenger apps without the use of special spy software. In Germany, authorities therefore rely on federal prosecutors – that is, state surveillance software, which is secretly installed on mobile phones and sends data to prosecutors.”
Privacy in Austria is stuck in both an ethical debate and a waiting game—and the decision that spawns from the waiting game will outweigh any argument for the protection of personal privacy. All that remains is time.