It is with great concern that Privacy First has taken note of the Dutch draft bill on COVID-19 test certificates. Under this bill, a negative COVID-19 test certificate will become mandatory for access to sporting and youth activities, all sorts of events and public places including bars and restaurants and cultural and higher education institutions, Those who have no such certificates risk getting high fines. This will put pressure on everyone's right to privacy.
Serious violation of fundamental rights
The draft bill severely infringes numerous fundamental and human rights, including the right to privacy, physical integrity and freedom of movement in combination with other relevant human rights such as the right to participate in cultural life, the right to education and various children’s rights such as the right to recreation. Any curtailment of these rights must be strictly necessary, proportionate and effective. However, the current draft bill fails to demonstrate this, while the required necessity in the public interest is simply assumed. More privacy-friendly alternatives to reopen and normalize society do not seem to have been considered. For these reasons alone, the proposal cannot pass the human rights test and should therefore be withdrawn.
The proposal also violates the general prohibition of discrimination, as it introduces a broad social distinction based on medical status. This puts pressure on social life and may lead to large-scale inequality, stigmatization, social segregation and even possible tensions, as large groups in society will not (or not systematically) want to or will not be able to get tested (for various reasons). During the recent Dutch National Privacy Conference organized by Privacy First and the Platform for the Information Society (ECP), it already became clear that the introduction of a mandatory ‘corona passport’ could have a socially disruptive effect. On that occasion the Dutch Data Protection Authority, among others, took a strong stand against it. Such social risks apply all the more strongly to the indirect vaccination obligation that follows on from the corona test certificate. In this regard, Privacy First wants to recall that recently both the Dutch House of Representatives and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have expressed their opposition to a direct or indirect vaccination requirement. In addition, the draft bill under consideration will have the potential to set precedents for other medical conditions and other sectors of society, putting pressure on a much broader range of socio-economic rights. For all of these reasons, Privacy First strongly recommends that the Dutch government withdraw this draft bill.
Multiple privacy violations
Moreover, from the perspective of the right to privacy, a number of specific objections and questions apply. First of all, the draft bill introduces a mandatory ‘proof of healthiness’ for participation in a large part of social life, in flagrant violation of the right to privacy and the protection of personal data. Also, the draft bill introduces an identification requirement at the entrance of public places, in violation of the right to anonymity in public spaces. The bill also results in the inconsistent application of existing legislation to the same act, namely testing, with far-reaching consequences on the one hand for a precious achievement like medical confidentiality and the trust of citizens in that confidentiality, and on the other hand for the practical implementation of retention periods while the processing of the test result does not change. After all, it is not the result of the test that should determine whether the file falls under the Dutch Medical Treatment Contracts Act (WGBO, which has a medical secrecy requirement and a retention period of 20 years) or under the Public Health Act (with a retention period of five years), but the act of testing itself. Moreover, it is unclear why the current draft bill seeks to connect to the Public Health Act and/or WGBO if it only concerns obtaining a test certificate for the purpose of participating in society (and therefore no medical treatment or public health task for that purpose). Here, the only possibility for processing and for breaching medical confidentiality should be the basis of consent. In this case, however, there cannot be the legally required freely given consent, since testing will be a compelling condition for participation in society.
Privacy requires clarity
Many other issues are still unclear: which data will be stored, where, by whom, and which data may possibly be exchanged? To what extent will there be personal localization and identification as opposed to occasional verification and authentication? Why may test results be kept for an unnecessarily long time (five or even 20 years)? How great are the risks of hacking, data breaches, fraud and forgery? To what extent will there be decentralized, privacy-friendly technology, privacy by design, open source software, data minimization and anonymization? Will test certificates remain free of charge and to what extent will privacy-friendly diversity and choice in testing applications be possible? Is work already underway to introduce an ‘alternative digital carrier’ in place of the Dutch CoronaCheck app, namely a chip, with all the risks that entails? How will function creep and profiling be prevented and are there any arrangements when it comes to data protection supervision? Will non-digital, paper alternatives always remain available? What will happen to the test material taken, i.e. everyone’s DNA? And when will the corona test certificates be abolished?
As long as such concerns and questions remain unanswered, submission of this bill makes no sense at all and the corona test certificate will only lead to the destruction of social capital. Privacy First therefore reiterates its request that the current proposal be withdrawn and not submitted to Parliament. Failing this, Privacy First will reserve the right to have the matter reviewed by the courts and declared unlawful.
 See the Dutch National Privacy Conference, 28 January 2021, https://youtu.be/asEX1jy4Tv0?t=9378, starting at 2h 36 min 18 sec.
 See Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Resolution 2361 (2021): Covid-19 vaccines: ethical, legal and practical considerations, https://pace.coe.int/en/files/29004/html, par. 7.3.1-7.3.2: “Ensure that citizens are informed that the vaccination is NOT mandatory and that no one is politically, socially, or otherwise pressured to get themselves vaccinated, if they do not wish to do so themselves; ensure that no one is discriminated against for not having been vaccinated, due to possible health risks or not wanting to be vaccinated.” See also, for example, Dutch House of Representatives, Motion by Member Azarkan on No Corona Vaccination Obligation (28 October 2020), Parliamentary Document 25295-676, https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/kst-25295-676.html: "The House (...) pronounces that there should never be a direct or indirect coronavirus vaccination obligation in the future"; Motion by Member Azarkan on Access to Public Benefits for All Regardless of Vaccination or Testing Status (5 January 2021), Parliamentary Document 25295-864, https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/kst-25295-864.html: "The House (...) requests the government to enable access to public services for all regardless of vaccination or testing status.’
A Dutch court has today handed down a judgment in preliminary injunction proceedings brought by Privacy First concerning the UBO register. The district court of The Hague confirmed that there is every reason to doubt the legality of the European money laundering directives which are the foundation of the UBO register. On this point the judge follows the very critical opinion of the European Data Protection Supervisor. The interim proceedings court rules that it cannot be excluded that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will come to the conclusion that the public character of the UBO register is at odds with the proportionality principle. Questions over its legality were recently referred to the CJEU by a Luxembourg national court. As such, the Dutch court felt there is no need to do the same.
Privacy First had also requested a temporary deactivation of the UBO register. This, however, is a step too far for the court, which states that deactivating the register is not possible as long as the underlying EU guideline is still in force. It would put the Netherlands in a position in which it operates in violation of the European guideline. With this claim, the judge says, Privacy First is getting ahead of itself. Privacy First will examine the ruling on this point, also in view of possibly going into appeal.
‘The introduction of the UBO register would mean that privacy-sensitive data of millions of people will be up for grabs’, comments Privacy First’s attorney Otto Volgenant of Boekx Attorneys.’On all sides there are strong doubts whether this is actually an effective means in the fight against money laundering and terrorism. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Court of Justice of the European Union will eventually adjudicate the case, and I expect it will annul the UBO register.’
At the start of this year, the Privacy First Foundation initiated fundamental legal action against the Dutch government on account of the new UBO register, which is linked to the Trade Register of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. Under the law the UBO register is based on, all 1.5 million Dutch legal entities that are included in the Trade Register will have to make public all sorts of privacy-sensitive data about their Ultimate Beneficial Owners. This concerns personal data of millions of directors, shareholders and high executives of companies (including family businesses), foundations, associations, churches, social organizations, charities, etc. Privacy First deems that this is a massive privacy violation, one which also creates personal safety risks. That is why Privacy First has asked the court to immediately declare the UBO register unlawful. A lot of information in the register will be publicly available and can be requested by anyone. In Privacy First’s opinion this is completely disproportionate and an infringement of European privacy law. The CJEU will examine whether the European legislation on which the UBO register is based violates the fundamental right to privacy.
The ruling (in Dutch) by the interim proceedings court can be found here: http://deeplink.rechtspraak.nl/uitspraak?id=ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:2457.
Update 15 April 2021: yesterday Privacy First filed an urgent appeal against the entire judgment with the Court of Appeal of The Hague. The appeal subpoena can be found HERE (pdf in Dutch). Privacy First requests the Court, inter alia, to ask preliminary questions about the UBO register to the European Court of Justice and to suspend the UBO register until these questions are answered. In view of the major interests at stake, Privacy First hopes that the Court of Appeal of The Hague will hear this case as soon as possible.
Privacy First initiates legal action against the Dutch government on account of the recently-introduced UBO register. The preliminary injunction proceedings point at the invalidity of the legislation on which this register is based. The consequences of this new piece of legislation are far-reaching as the register contains very privacy-sensitive information. Data relating to the financial situation of natural persons will be up for grabs. More than 1.5 million legal entities that are registered in the Dutch Trade Register will have to make public details about their Ultimate Beneficial Owners (UBOs). The UBO register is publicly accessible: a request for information costs €2.50.
The UBO register aims to prevent money laundering but will lead to defamation.
The privacy breach that is the result of the UBO register and the public accessibility of sensitive data are disproportionate. The goal of the register is to thwart money laundering and terrorist financing. In order to achieve this goal there is no need for a UBO register, at least not one that is publicly accessible.
That is why Privacy First wants the UBO register to be rendered inoperative by a court, which, in case necessary, should submit questions of interpretation to the highest court in Europe: the European Court of Justice. In cases like these, the judiciary will have the final say. It is not uncommon for a court to overrule privacy-violating legislation and in this respect, Privacy First’s litigation has been successful in the past.
The proceedings will take place before The Hague District Court on 25 February 2021 at 12pm. The entire summons can be found HERE (pdf in Dutch). The ruling will follow two or three weeks after the hearing.
Background of the UBO register case
On 24 June 2020, the Dutch ‘Implementation Act for the Registration of Ultimate Beneficial Owners of Companies and Other Legal Entities’ came into effect in the Netherlands. On the basis of this new Act, a new UBO register which is linked to the Commercial Register of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce will contain information about all ultimate beneficial owners of companies and other legal entities founded in the Netherlands. The register should indicate how many shares are owned by the UBO: 25-50%, 50-75% or more than 75%. Furthermore, the name, month and year of birth as well as the nationality of the UBO will be made public, with all the privacy risks this entails.
Since 27 September 2020, newly founded entities have to register the ultimate beneficial owners in the UBO register. Existing legal entities will have to do so before 27 March 2022.
The Act provides very few possibilities to safeguard information. This is possible only for persons that are protected by the police, minors and those placed under guardianship. This means that the shares of practically every UBO will become a matter of public record. Anyone has access to the UBO register, with extracts coming at a price of €2.50.
European money laundering directive
The new Act stems from the fifth European money laundering directive, which obliges EU Member States to register UBOs and disclose their details to the public. According to the European legislator, this contributes to the proclaimed objective of countering money laundering and terrorist financing. The transparency is supposed to be a deterrent for persons who set out to launder money or finance terrorism.
Massive privacy violation and fundamental criticism
The question is whether this produces a windfall effect. Registering the personal data of all UBOs and making these publicly available is a generic precautionary measure. 99.99% of UBOs have nothing to do with money laundering or terrorist financing. Even if it were proportionate to collect information on all UBOs, making that information available only to government agencies engaged in combating money laundering and terrorism should suffice. It is not appropriate to disclose that information to everyone. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) deemed this privacy violation to be disproportionate. This opinion, however, did not lead to an amendment of the European Directive.
When this Act was discussed in Dutch Parliament, fundamental criticism came from various corners of society. The business community made its voice heard because it perceived privacy risks and feared − and now indeed experiences − an increase in costs. UBOs of family-owned companies that have remained out of the public eye up until now are running major privacy and security risks. There was also a great deal of attention for the position of social organizations − such as church communities and NGOs − that attach great importance to the protection of those affiliated with them. Associations and foundations that do not have owners face a different burden: they have to put the data that are already in the Trade Register in yet another register. Unfortunately these complaints have not resulted in any changes to the legislation.
Legal proceedings look promising
Privacy First has initiated legal proceedings against the UBO register for violation of the fundamental right to privacy and the protection of personal data. Privacy First asks the Dutch court to render the UBO register inoperative in the short term and, if necessary, to submit questions of interpretation on this matter to the highest court in Europe, the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The Dutch Act as well as the underlying European directive are in conflict with both the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the GDPR. It is the legislator who has created this legislation, but it will be up to the court to do a thorough review thereof. Ultimately, the court has the last word. If the (European) legislator fails to take adequate account of the protection of fundamental rights, then the (European) court can invalidate this legislation. This would not be unique. The Court of Justice of the European Union has previously declared legislation invalid due to privacy violations, for example the Data Retention Directive and, more recently, the Privacy Shield. Dutch courts too regularly annul privacy-invading regulations. Privacy First has previously successfully challenged the validity of legislation, for example in the proceedings concerning the Telecommunications Data Retention Act and the System Risk Indication (SyRI). Viewed against this background, a positive outcome in the case against the UBO register is all but unlikely.
This week the Dutch House of Representatives will debate the ‘temporary’ Corona emergency law under which the movements of everyone in the Netherlands can henceforth be monitored ‘anonymously’. Privacy First has previously criticized this plan in a television broadcast by current affairs program Nieuwsuur. Subsequently, today Privacy First has sent the following letter to the House of Representatives:
Dear Members of Parliament,
With great concern, Privacy First has taken note of the ‘temporary’ legislative proposal to provide COVID-19 related telecommunications data to the Dutch National Public Health Institute (RIVM). Privacy First advises to reject this proposal on account of the following fundamental concerns and risks:
Violation of fundamental administrative and privacy principles
- There is no societal necessity for this legislative proposal. Other forms of monitoring have already proven sufficiently effective. The necessity of this proposal has not been demonstrated and there is no other country where the application of similar technologies made any significant contribution.
- The proposal is entirely disproportionate as it encompasses all telecom location data in the entire country. Any form of differentiation is absent. The same applies to data minimization: a sample would be sufficient.
- The proposal goes into effect retroactively on 1 January 2020. This violates legal certainty and the principle of legality, particularly because this date is long before the Dutch ‘start’ of the pandemic (11 March 2020).
- The system of ‘further instructions from the minister’ that has been chosen for the proposal is completely undemocratic. This further erodes the democratic rule of law and the oversight of parliament.
- The proposal does not mention 'privacy by design' or the implementation thereof, while this should actually be one of its prominent features.
Alternatives are less invasive: subsidiarity
- The State Secretary failed to adequately investigate alternatives which are more privacy friendly. Does she even have any interest in this at all?
- Data in the possession of telecom providers are pseudonymized with unique ID numbers and as such are submitted to Statistics Netherlands (CBS). This means that huge amounts of sensitive personal data become very vulnerable. Anonymization by CBS happens only at a later stage.
- When used, the data are filtered based on geographical origin. This creates a risk of discrimination on the basis of nationality, which is prohibited.
- It is unclear whether the CBS and the RIVM intend to ‘enrich’ these data with other data, which could lead to function creep and potential data misuse.
Lack of transparency and independent oversight
- Up until now, the Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) of the proposal has not been made public.
- There is no independent oversight on the measures and effects (by a judge or an independent commission).
- The GDPR may be applicable to the proposal only partially as anonymous data and statistics are exempt from the GDPR. This gives rise to new risks of data misuse, poor digital protection, data breaches, etc. General privacy principles should therefore be made applicable in any case.
Structural changes and chilling effect
- This proposal seems to be temporary, but the history of similar legislation shows that it will most likely become permanent.
- Regardless of the ‘anonymization’ of various data, this proposal will make many people feel like they are being monitored, which in turn will make them behave unnaturally. The risk of a societal chilling effect is huge.
Faulty method with a significant impact
- The effectiveness of the legislative proposal is unknown. In essence, it constitutes a large scale experiment. However, Dutch society is not meant to be a living laboratory.
- By means of data fusion, it appears that individuals could still be identified on the basis of anonymous data. Even at the chosen threshold of 15 units per data point, the risk of unique singling out and identification is likely still too large.
- The proposal will lead to false signals and blind spots due to people with several telephones as well as vulnerable groups without telephones, etc.
- There is a large risk of function creep, of surreptitious use and misuse of data (including the international exchange thereof) by other public services (including the intelligence services) and future public authorities.
- This proposal puts pressure not just on the right to privacy, but on other human rights as well, including the right to freedom of movement and the right to demonstrate. The proposal can easily lead to structural crowd control that does not belong in a democratic society.
Specific prior consent
Quite apart from the above concerns and risks, Privacy First doubts whether the use of telecom data by telecom providers, as envisaged by the legislative proposal, is lawful in the first place. In the view of Privacy First, this would require either explicit, specific and prior consent (opt-in) from customers, or the possibility for them to opt-out at a later stage and to have the right to have all their data removed.
It is up to you as Members of Parliament to protect our society from this legislative proposal. If you fail to do so, Privacy First reserves the right to take legal action against this law.
The Privacy First Foundation