May 9, 2020 / 3:45 AM / a month ago

Austria denies trove of public and ministers' addresses was data leak

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s Economy Ministry confirmed on Friday it had removed a database from its website that for years showed the home addresses of around a million people including the president and cabinet ministers, but it denied there had been a data leak.

A liberal opposition party, the Neos, announced on Thursday that the searchable but little-known “Complementary Register” was publicly visible, calling for it to be taken down.

People whose details were featured include the interior, economy, environment and tourism ministers, as well as some of the country’s best-known journalists, musicians and actors.

“This is the biggest data protection scandal of the republic there has ever been in Austria,” Neos lawmaker and digitisation spokesman Douglas Hoyos told a news conference on Friday, welcoming the database’s removal overnight.

The database’s exact purpose and why people are on it remain unclear, though it appears to include individuals who are or were self-employed and who had secondary sources of income.

Much of the public was shocked or surprised, including a presenter of national broadcaster ORF’s main TV news programme.

“I found myself listed on this website. I can definitely say for my part that I never gave permission to be visible on this register. I did not even know about this site and assume that many, many of these million people in Austria knew nothing about it,” Lou Lorenz-Dittlbacher said on Thursday while interviewing a data protection activist who worked with the Neos.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives reacted angrily to Hoyos but also complied with his request.

The party’s leader in parliament, August Woeginger, said the database has existed for years and the Neos should have known.

“The Neos’ cluelessness is shocking,” he said in a statement, adding that the register had existed in its current form since 2009 by order of a government decree.

The conservative-controlled Economy Ministry echoed his comments in a statement but added that it took down the database on Thursday night “to prevent possible misuse of the data as a result of the discussion in the media”.

“The ministry is always open to a legal adjustment and improvement. At the same time it should be noted that this is neither a data leak or a theft of data,” it added.

The conservatives’ junior coalition partner, the Greens, said: “The availability of such a large number of people’s private addresses is ... problematic from a data-protection perspective.”

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Giles Elgood

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