Austria scuppers bill for surveillance of online messaging services

A photo illustration shows a chain and a padlock in front of a displayed Whatsapp logo January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's Social Democrats (SPO) on Thursday scuppered a draft law that would have allowed police to monitor messaging services such as WhatsApp FB.O and Skype. It would give authorities too much scope to spy on people's lives, they said.

The bill, an attempt to close the gap on criminals who avoid communicating via telephone, was drafted by the Social Democrats’ conservative junior coalition partners (OVP) who invited political, technological and legal experts for their opinions by Aug. 21.

Such surveillance of online messaging services would have been permitted only with a court order in investigations into terrorist activities or other crimes punishable by at least five years in prison.

Austrian courts have already jailed several people for links to terrorist organizations after verdicts that were supported by data acquired from seized devices. The proposed legislation would have provided authorization for obtaining data from devices that had not been seized.

Other European countries with similar laws include France, Italy, Poland and Spain, the justice ministry has said.

“In this form, it is completely impossible,” Hannes Jarolim, the SPO’s spokesperson on judicial affairs told ORF radio. Newspaper Vorarlberger Nachrichten quoted him as saying the bill went against the rule of law.

Criticism of the bill reflected concern that such software - sometimes referred to as a ‘federal Trojan’ - would have too much access to private data saved on hard drives and cloud services, rather than merely real-time messages.

A spokesperson for the SPO’s parliamentary faction said she hoped the bill could still be amended to give police the power they need to pursue criminals. Austria’s opposition parties also opposed the current draft law.

Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Richard Balmforth