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Data Retention: Nearly 200 Inquiries to Date

A parliamentary hearing on Wednesday dealt with the petition to stop data retention that has been signed by over 100,000 Austrians. The Ministry of Justice released the first figures on the queries made under the controversial data retention system. The demand of the petition, a government mandate to contest data retention at the EU level, will not be met.

"The result is very disappointing," said Andreas Krisch from the Austrian Working Group on Data Retention (AK Vorrat) at a press conference in Vienna on Wednesday afternoon. The conference followed a hearing before the parliamentary judicial committee on the citizen`s initiative launched by AK Vorrat to stop data retention; the initiative is supported by 106,067 Austrians.

The initiative demands that the federal government work actively at the EU level against the EU

directive, which was originally adopted to fight terrorism and which requires that all telephone and Internet data be saved for six months without due cause. The directive went into force in Austria on April 1. The initiative is also calling for the evaluation of all Austrian monitoring laws in terms of their necessity and appropriateness.

"Concerns ignored"
The demands of the initiative were not taken into account in the committee`s findings. Instead, the representatives of the SPÖ, ÖVP, FPÖ and BZÖ simply requested that the federal government implement decisions of the Austrian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Justice regarding current litigation on data retention. "But they (Ed.: the government) are required to do that anyway," criticized judicial spokesperson for the Greens Albert Steinhauser in his blog. "The judicial committee ignored the concerns and demands of the initiative and adopted a meaningless decision," Steinhauser told futurezone: "We need action to be taken in Brussels to amend or abolish the EU data retention directive. The position that the Austrian government is taking is not at all clear."

Sixteen experts were invited to the closed hearing of the judicial committee, and most of them were critical of data retention according to Krisch. Only representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of the Interior supported the controversial EU directive.

Nearly 200 retained data queries
The legal protection commissioner of the Ministry of Justice, Gottfried Strasser, reported 188 inquiries up to yesterday according to a parliamentary press release. Three of the cases covered homicide investigations, 58 aggravated theft, 14 aggravated robbery, and 20 stalking. Additional inquiries pertained to serious fraud (16), narcotics violations (20) and rape (10). Further information was provided for 19 cases, seven of which were stalking investigations. Minister of Justice Beatrix Karl (ÖVP) said that the hearing before the parliament demonstrated the "reasonable application" of data retention in practice.

The Ministry of the Interior reported nine retained data queries by executive authorities regarding security threats from April to September. According to Manfred Burgstaller, judicial spokesperson in the agency, four inquiries pertained to the assignment of IP addresses and five the location of a mobile phone.

Expansion discussed
But the number of inquiries, which are currently only permitted for serious crimes aside from some exceptions, may soon rise significantly. Because the Ministry of Justice

an amendment of the Austrian copyright laws that may allow copyright holders to access retained data. "This confirms what we were afraid of all along," said Krisch: "Barely six months after the introduction of data retention, the first expansions of the system are already being discussed."

According to Krish, the EU Commission has not yet demonstrated the need for data retention. An evaluation report that was presented last year was full of methodological problems and only included "anecdotal examples," he said. European criminal prosecution authorities want to expand data retention, said Krisch in reference to a report of the EU Commission to the Data Protection Working Party of the EU Council of Ministers: "The goal is the total monitoring of all activities on the Internet."

"Like Stasi powers"
Christof Tschohl from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, which drew up the draft law for the implementation of the EU directive, stressed that even the minimal implementation of data retention is a violation of basic civil rights. And he said that one must not view data retention in isolation from other monitoring activities. Tschohl noted that the government has numerous rights to infringe on the privacy of its citizens: "If the government were to actually exercise all of its rights, it would have powers equivalent to those of the Stasi in the former East Germany."

"We are at a turning point: Will we be able to communicate freely and in privacy in the future, or will every statement that we make be documented, recorded and potentially used against us," said Krisch from AK Vorrat. "This is a fundamental issue of democracy."

Complaint before the Constitutional Court
The group behind the initiative now hopes that its concerns will be discussed in a plenary session of parliament. "We will not give up," said Tschohl. The organization intends to continue its lobbying activities. And the constitutional court is currently hearing three complaints against data retention. One of these was filed by AK Vorrat together with the Greens and was signed by over 11,000 citizens.