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The Austrian government is set to introduce controversial legislation which would grant police authorities in the country the ability to access encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Skype. The government has claimed that the legislation has been drafted in an effort to ‘crackdown’ on criminals who are increasingly avoiding the use of communication via telephone.

Austria’s Justice Ministry said that government officials has consulted with political, technology, civil rights and legal experts to review its draft legislation - that would ultimately enable authorities to access and monitor real-time conversations on messaging service application.

However, it has transpired that such surveillance would only be permitted with a court order into investigations in relation to potential terrorist activities, or other crimes punishable by at least five years imprisonment. Other EU countries such as France, Italy, Poland and Spain has adopted similar policy changes and introduced new laws.

It remains unclear how Austria would conduct such a surveillance program, although it has been suggested that one approach would involve the installation of software on the computers and mobile devices of suspects using messaging tools with end-to-end encryption. That would prevent the government from accessing information by means of traditional, remote eavesdropping techniques.

It’s been further disclosed that such tools are sold by a handful of Austrian firms who specialize in selling off the shelf surveillance to governments. "Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are gravitating toward this type of spyware to overcome the challenge of end-to-end encryption," said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.

Deibert’s institute investigates the abuse of such surveillance tools, and he stressed the importance for governments to make sure they have proper oversight and public accountability when granting police authorities the right to use these particular surveillance technologies. It has been reported that the Austrian Judicial system has already sentenced several individuals to prison for their links to terrorist organizations. Prosecutions were made in a number of cases due to the influence of data from devices that had been seized by law enforcement officials. The government plans to submit the bill to parliament after an Aug. 21 deadline for submission of opinions.

Published in Government