From the internet to the bedroom, Austrians care about – and protect – the personal sphere. It’s a cultural thing.

On a cold, grey day in January, a security camera suspended from a bouquet of colorful balloons was bobbing on a long cord over the Austrian parliament – a protest by AK Vorrat to highlight the imminent passage of the Polizeiliches Staatsschutzgesetz, setting up a new Austrian secret service with wide data collection powers. It would be called the BVT, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung, the Federal Agency to Protect the Constitution and Fight Terrorism.

"Snowdenplatz" (Photo: NEOS)
“Snowdenplatz” (Photo: NEOS)

Around the same time, a parliamentarian for the independent NEOS party and owner of the Alpine edition of Vice magazine, Niko Alm, made his own protest against mass surveillance: He left a golden bust of Edward Snowden in his Parliament parking spot. The “” action was legal, but security removed the bust “for its own safety.” Alm is still waiting for its return.

For privacy campaigners, our world is becoming a panopticon – the utilitarian prison designed by Jeremy Bentham to control inmates by denying their privacy. Every second of the day, we are complicit in its loss.

Austrians respect privacy. And recently, activists and lawmakers have been re-energized by Vienna law student Max Schrems’ successful invalidation of the U.S.-EU “Safe Harbor” agreement and his ongoing class-action lawsuit against Facebook’s data rules. Austria adopted Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in 2000, stating that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” Since then, Austrians have been actively quashing faulty European Data Retention laws in Brussels; recent petitions with over 100,000 signatures from even the tiniest villages influence Austrian judges.

In the 2015 documentary Alles unter Kontrolle (Everything Under Control), Austrian filmmaker Werner Boote set out to discover the accessibility of his private information. What he found appalled him. “When you use your supermarket bonus card to buy junk food, you might also be telling your insurance company that they should raise your rates,” he says. Proposed PNR (Passenger Name Records) data collection legislation drew criticism from Barbara Wimmer, the “Netzpolitik” (digital rights) editor at the Austrian daily Kurier. “We need more comprehensive evaluation of the ‘data flood’ before implementing anything,” she said.

Art installation at Südbahnhof “Einen Augenblick Zeit” (photo: Roland Schläger/APA Picturedesk)

For “Netzpolitik” experts, public privacy and online privacy are now inextricably linked. “In my private life there are many things I hide from people around me, but I have to accept that a lot of my electronic communication is watched by somebody,” confirmed Thomas Lohninger, the CEO of AK Vorrat, a working committee on the issue of gathering and holding private information.

Data is constantly collected online and offline – your laptop keystrokes, city stroll, tram ride, flight check-in, Skype calls, WhatsApp messages, Tinder dates. A Shanghai editor friend pointed out the irony when I bought an old Maoist diary at a flea market – her ancestors were forced to detail the minutiae of their daily lives in the little red books. Now we do it willingly. International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI-catchers are like fake mobile towers, or giant ears on streets.

Lohninger understands the importance of surveillance to regular police work, but notes, “IMSI-catchers also have the technical capability to listen in on someone’s conversation, which is unlawful… Is it so unrealistic that a policeman would listen in?”

The Roots of Privacy in Austria

Vienna is a city with privacy built into it; it lies on a flood plain – pancake flat with clear sight lines – surrounded by forested hills with a castle look-out on every promontory.


For centuries a walled city at the eastern edge of the Alps, it was the furthest defense of the Romans under Marcus Aurelius, the Holy Roman Empire against the Ottomans, and the closest border to the Iron Curtain – just 45 minutes from Vienna. In 2015, Austria again became a front line, managing the refugees desiring access to “Fortress Europe.” On January 17th, it became the first country to formally suspend the Schengen Agreement.

Vienna’s central districts are encircled by two busy traffic lanes – the Ring and the Gürtel. Layers of inner courtyards behind the facades of grand palaces and large apartment buildings allow citizens to live outside the view of passing traffic and Google Street View cameras.

It was here, according to psychologist Mark Solms, that Sigmund Freud “brought private thoughts to light of day, exposing the ‘Id’ ”, the darker human impulses bubbling beneath the social veneer.  In a 1919 essay on the uncanny – “das Unheimliche” – Freud described our mixed fascination and fear of hidden impulses, often sexual. Whether foreigners, innovations, or simply a non-Austrian way of doing things, the Viennese are often ambivalent, even rude, toward the unfamiliar. As filmmaker Boote notes, “Traditionally people in this region have not seen themselves as part of the global community, which makes it hard for them to accept others.”

11258110_871311642923093_7268295347389549554_oImperial Austria – backed by the Metternich spy system and traditional Catholic virtues, rituals and symbolism – maintained order through both state control and self-control. What was best for the State was right for the individual. Habsburg society was extremely hierarchical – one knew one’s place. The benefits of compliance were participation in the fruits of the sprawling Empire. Language and manners were prescribed, with detailed protocols of address, of “Du” or “Sie” and  grand titles protecting carefully crafted personas, enhanced by the perfect dress for work, daily life, balls and spectacles.

A city of contradictions

With censorship in the public sphere, creative energy went into the Arts. Vienna became a world of performance, captured in the perennial phrase, Alles nur Theater, all the world’s a stage.

A system so repressed often seethes under the surface. Those seeking an outlet met at a regular Stammtisch at a Kaffeehaus, or Beisl (tavern). Kabarettisten sang satirical Wienerlieder. It is rumored that even the Kaiser retreated to a personal bordello. There were private outlets at every level of society, where the law turned a blind eye to anything not repugnant or illegal. As Stefan Zweig wrote in The World of Yesterday, “The herd instinct of the mob was not yet as offensively powerful in public life as it is today; freedom in what you did or did not do in private life was taken for granted – which is hardly imaginable now – and toleration was not, as it is today, deplored as a weakness and debility, but was praised as an ethical force.”

Post-Empire and postwar, Vienna struggled to redefine itself among the WWII injuries of silence. About so many things, it seemed, the less said the better, as spies for both sides set up shop under the benign neglect of Viennese Schlampigkeit (sloppiness). Citizens who had spied on each other under the Gestapo were now joined by Germans fleeing the Stasi. Post-1989, Eastern Europeans traumatized by USSR state surveillance poured into Vienna, cautiously trading their secretiveness for Western-style prosperity.

Through the decades, a different interpretation of privacy evolved: the right to live as you wished, openly.  The 1960’s Aktionismus art movement confronted repression with humor and bodily fluids in provocative  public “happenings.”  Along with the UN, over 100 international organizations began creating a world stage in Vienna (NB: hosting the Iran talks in 2015), side by side with one of the world’s most secretive banking systems. Nazi-appropriated art escaped restitution. Legal brothels flourished. The secrets collected here turned the city into the spy capital of the world. An NSA listening post on the IZD building was uncovered in 2014 by the journalist Glenn Greenwald. Spying is condoned, as long as it is not against the interests of the Austrian state.

Vienna today is a paradox, outwardly conservative, yet also bubbling with modernization: International communities, new architecture, Smart City Technology and Green initiatives. Younger Viennese are inspired by the 1970s liberal reforms of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, global movements and social media.

Niko Alm came to politics championing the separation of church and state: “There should be no crosses in public buildings,” he insisted. “In a modern democracy, the highest authority is the people, not a superior power.” Today, students party openly in public, and 24hr automats sell marijuana seeds. During the 2008 Life Ball, the cult band Drahdiwaberl staged group sex in City Hall. During a heat wave in 2012, the Leopold Museum offered nude visitors free entrance. Nudity in saunas and Danube swimming holes, long a tradition in the German-speaking world, is a benefit to spies but a moral dilemma to Anglo-Saxons.

Privacy in Austrian Law

While many Viennese still value their quality-of-life traditions, there is a growing awareness that the social contract is being undermined by the intrusiveness of the Internet; as well as by the lack of strong data legislation to protect privacy in everyday life.

The privacy pioneer Spiros Sitimis confirmed in a 2015 interview the reactive nature of much of privacy law – first the technology, then the rules. “It’s a ping-pong game,” Lohninger adds, “Politicians pass laws that are unconstitutional. We go to court to kill them. They make new laws….” On the other hand, Lohninger accepts that, “Judges are also part of society.” The strong push from the public, he says, has helped take their campaign to the European High Court.

Alm had a more positive spin on the Staatsschutzgesetz: “It makes sense to take surveillance away from normal police, who often did not handle data very well.” Police have sent lists of protesters via unencrypted emails. But it could lead back to mass surveillance and data retention, he warns. “If you monitor someone’s secondary and tertiary contacts, pretty soon you are monitoring hundreds of thousands of people.”

Party balloons carry a surveillance camera over the Austrian parliament during an AK Vorrat demonstration

Still, in Austria, “innocent until proven guilty” is taken seriously, more so than in the U.S., where, following the screening of the Netflix series Making a Murderer, Steven Avery is currently being “tried” in the media. Here, cameras are not allowed in the  courtroom. The media may only publish a suspect’s and victim’s first name and last initial. Ethnicities are not normally  mentioned; faces are protected by pixelation. The notorious Josef Fritzl, for example, who imprisoned his own daughter in a cellar for 24 years fathering seven children, was allowed to hold an A4 ring binder over his face throughout his single media appearance. Critics of this privacy tradition point out that neighbors’ suspicions were ignored over decades.

The cyber world is different: An independent IT expert found his life turned upside down when the police acted on a single Facebook tag identifying  him as a notorious hacker. The innocent man is now a Netzpolitik activist.

It’s easy these days to become what the lawyer Kate Goold termed “an accidental terrorist.” One suspicious keystroke and your right to be left alone may be stripped. Proponents of “profiling” argue it is necessary to criminology. But how do we determine who is a potential threat? Solms is apprehensive about “pre-crime” profiling technology. “The mind is the last sanctum of privacy. It’s by definition unique, subjective, and therefore private. Only you can ever know your own mental states. You can never perceive the thoughts or deeds of anybody else directly.” Facial recognition (used in Dutch trams), DNA analysis and brain mapping build a superficial impression, a “Digital Me.” But a screenshot, as two-dimensional as even the greatest portraits, misses the soul, says Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy, the warmth humans exchange on meeting one another – what she calls “our most important feature.”

Invading the intimer Bereich, the private sphere, such as accessing medical data to ascertain one’s propensity for crime, holds other dangers. For Solms, forcing psychiatrists to reveal patient diagnoses will reduce people’s trust in the process. “You don’t always know yourself what you want, who you are. If you can’t be absolutely sure your privacy is protected, we lose the possibility of change or cure.” Would a Fritzl have been caught by mass data collection? A similar case last month in Sweden would suggest not.

The Internet of Things

Whatever we wish, our devices are already chatting to one another. Deep links connect our apps, ostensibly to aid our daily lives. “The Internet of Things” – the exchange of data between our cars, smartphones, buildings, glasses, all embedded with software, sensors, and network connectivity – is a reality. Our online searches are taken by marketers as more honest than our public interactions. But are we merely bundles of biometric information to be analyzed and manipulated? Is the digital “me” more real than the flesh and blood one?

“Statistically, we cannot hide behavioral patterns. They contradict the nice pics we post online,” confirmed Niko Alm, who also invests in very data-hungry apps. He added optimistically, “There is data I can control. Like Facebook. I can opt out. It’s my fault if I don’t protect myself.” But, he concedes, there are many online traces that we cannot control, like mobility data.

How do we manage data in a private, fair and responsible way? How can we retain the “Right to be forgotten” – the power to erase or amend our online activity, our social media image-crafting?  For Alm, a startup investor, you ask for unwanted attention by using the encryption tool “Pretty Good Privacy” (PGP) or the anonymous browser Tor. For activists like Lohninger and Jacob Applebaum, they are essential self-protection.

Austrians, at least, are active. The public can attend informative lectures at the hacker club Metalab and the Chaos Computer Club “HEGG” conference in Salzburg in March. In January a “Lichtermeer” (sea of light) on Rennweg raised awareness of the Staatsschutzgesetz. Hackers like “Fin” at Der Standard push privacy to the front pages. Politics here makes for strange bedfellows – techies, socialists, the far right and libertarians share strategies. There are legal and financial barriers in Austria to building a child abuse database – a far cry from the intrusive Dutch psychiatric database (the DBC) or the U.K. Bio Databank. Austria has a relatively low density of security cameras, and strict rules. Restrictions on Google Street View are, like Germany’s, severe.

The Future of Privacy?

Our physical borders may be closing, but our digital traces flow freely. “It’s hard to predict the final outcome,” said Lohninger. “With every terrorist attack we lose ground. We need safeguards within the legislative process. To establish awareness that surveillance hurts our democracy and that there is a maximum above which it becomes hurtful for Society as a whole.” The laws protecting privacy teeter on the edge of innocent until proven guilty. Whether that changes with closing borders, state “backdoor” viruses, or “Burgernet” apps that encourage citizen spying, remains to be seen.

Our techno-optimism versus our fears of technology is pure Viennese ambivalence. We know we are being watched, yet we cannot resist participating. We celebrate ownership, yet distribute our data freely. We value solitude, yet crave the constant light of our devices. The eyes on us cross all national and cultural borders.

“People easily understand the argument that we have to give up privacy because of terrorism or pedophilia, all of which are very serious and alarming,” said psychologist Solms, “but people don’t easily understand enough how important their privacy is.”

Werner Boote agrees: “We need to separate privacy from having something to hide.” An email from MIT pops up recommending courses in cyber-security, my recent search history. I may well join those reverting to dumb phones, post-it notes, and typewriters.

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Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app