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Austria, like several other European countries, is pursuing plans to give the police the right to monitor communication apps such as WhatsApp and Skype in an attempt to “close the gap” on criminals who increasingly avoid communicating via telephone. As reported on thestar.com, the government asked political, technology, civil rights and legal experts to review draft legislation that would give it authority to monitor real-time conversations using new messaging services and applications.
This sort of surveillance would be permitted only with a court order in investigations into terrorist activities or other crimes punishable by at least five years in prison, one of the officials said. This isn’t the first time such an idea has risen, other European countries posses similar laws. Among them are France, Italy, Poland and Spain.
It was not immediately clear how Austria would conduct such surveillance, though one approach would be to install software on computers and smartphones of suspects using messaging tools with end-to-end encryption that prevents the government from accessing it via traditional, remote eavesdropping techniques. Such tools are sold by a handful of firms that specialise in selling off-the-shelf surveillance tools, or spyware, 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 abuse of such tools. He said it’s important for governments to make sure they have proper oversight and public accountability when giving authorities the right to use new surveillance technologies.
Austrian courts have already sentenced several people to prison for links to terrorist organisations after verdicts that were supported by data acquired from seized devices. The proposed legislation provides authorisation for obtaining data from devices that have not been seized. The government plans to submit the bill to parliament after an Aug 21 deadline for submission of opinions.
In Germany, police and intelligence services have the authority to install malware on suspect phones, but this is highly controversial and it is unclear how widely it is used. Britain’s Intelligence Act, which is still being implemented, explicitly gives power to police and intelligence services for the mass interception of communications.