​State phone-hacking plans put on ice in Austria

Spying on apps like WhatsApp using smartphone spyware would have gone too far, say Austrian politicians.

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Austria's ruling party has decided against further state surveillance powers.

Image: Getty Images

The party leading Austria's ruling coalition has effectively sunk an attempt by its junior partner to expand the surveillance of online communications services such as WhatsApp.

The plan, drawn up by the conservative ÖVP party, would have given Austrian police powers to deploy spyware into people's phones -- not only for suspects in crimes involving potential prison sentences of five years or more, but also for those people who are in contact with the suspects.

The social-democrat SPÖ party said the draft legislation went far beyond the policies described in its coalition agreement with the ÖVP. According to a Thursday report in Der Standard, SPÖ justice spokesman Hannes Jarolim said it was "absolutely unimaginable" that the proposal could go ahead, due to the large numbers of people who might be caught up in the surveillance.

And on Friday, Austrian chancellor Christian Kern said the government was committed to finding ways to more effectively tackle terrorism and crime, but the debate was "also about the basic freedoms of citizens".

The practice of hacking suspects' contacts, as well as the suspects themselves, was legalised in the Netherlands earlier this month. Last month, the German parliament authorised a significant expansion of the types of crime where a suspect's phone can be hacked. Spain and the UK also give broad hacking powers to their authorities, thanks to laws passed in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

Such moves come as a reaction to two trends: people's communications are shifting from traditional voice and SMS channels to internet-based services such as WhatsApp and Skype; and these new services increasingly employ end-to-end encryption that makes it impossible to decode messages as they flow through telecommunications networks.

By hacking into a suspect's phone, it's possible to see the decrypted messages that they see on their screen, and to log what they type before it becomes encrypted. The spyware that allows this sometimes also makes it possible to rifle through the phone's contents in search of incriminating files - Chinese authorities recently ordered everyone in the Xinjiang province to install the state's official spyware application to this end.

Under the scrapped Austrian plans, the use of the 'federal Trojan' (Bundestrojaner) would have only taken effect in August 2019, as the authorities there did not yet have the expertise to put it into action.

Last week it emerged that Germany's homegrown Trojan software should be ready for rollout by the end of this year.

The Austrian lawyers' association ÖRAK was among many critics of that country's plans, with association president Rupert Wolff calling the plan a step towards the surveillance state.

Regarding the proposed exchange of data between the police and Austrian security forces, Wolff said: "This is like in [East Germany], where one neighbour spies on the other." He also criticised the fact that the proposal went beyond modernising traditional phone-tapping, potentially exposing all the information on people's phones.

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