Civil rights coalition: Dutch Senate should reject far-reaching data surveillance Act
A coalition of civil rights organizations in the Netherlands that had previously won a lawsuit against System Risk Indication (SyRI) is calling on the Dutch Senate to reject an even more sweeping Bill dubbed ‘Super SyRI’. According to the parties, the proposal is on a collision course with the rule of law while the Dutch government refuses to learn lessons from the childcare benefits scandal, one of the largest scandals in Dutch politics in recent decades.
The Data Processing by Partnerships Act (Wet Gegevensverwerking door Samenwerkingsverbanden, WGS) enables Dutch government agencies and companies to link together the data stored about citizens and companies through partnerships. Public authorities and companies that take part in such cooperative frameworks are obliged to pool together their data. This should help in the fight against all kinds of crime and offenses.
Under the Act, it is not just data that companies and public authorities share with each other. Signals, suspicions and blacklists are also exchanged and linked together. On the basis of this form of shadow record-keeping, these parties can coordinate with each other enforcement ‘interventions’ against citizens who end up in their crosshairs.
Public authorities and companies targeting citizens through data surveillance
In order to enable the large-scale sharing of personal data between public authorities and companies, the Act casts aside numerous confidentiality obligations, privacy rights and legal safeguards that have traditionally applied to the processing of personal data. This leads to a "far-reaching, large-scale erosion of the legal protection of citizens", according to the opposing coalition of which Privacy First is a member: "If this Bill is adopted, the door will be left wide open for the executive branch of the government and private parties to subject both citizens and companies to arbitrary data surveillance."
Through the Act, the Dutch government also wants to create the possibility to start new partnerships in case of ‘urgency’, without providing Parliament the opportunity of examination. The Dutch House of Representatives will be informed about such partnerships only after their establishment, then having to decide whether to pass them into law. This is contrary to the Dutch Constitution, which stipulates that legislation approved by Parliament should include privacy protections. The parties find it unacceptable that Parliament is not involved in the formation of new partnerships and can decide on them only after they have been established.
Legitimizing unlawful practices that have lasted for years
In addition to the possibility of establishing new partnerships, the Act includes four partnerships that have been around for years, but have never been laid down in law. The cabinet now wants to retroactively create a legal basis for these partnerships.
The parties that brought legal proceedings against System Risk Indication (SyRI) point out that SyRI, which was prohibited by the court, was also used for years without a legal basis. According to the parties, there are strong similarities with the partnerships that the new Bill is now intended to legitimize: "Drastic practices in which personal data are processed in violation of the fundamental rights of citizens were set up as a trial and continued for years, only to be given a legal basis as a fait accompli. Fundamental rights that should protect citizens against unjustified government action thereby become mere obstacles for the government to overcome."
Risk assessments, blacklists and suspicions
The coalition previously wrote that the practices under the Act are in many ways similar to the data processing that preceded the childcare benefits scandal that sent shock waves through Dutch society. Based on secret data analyses, lists of citizens who had been falsely labeled by the tax authorities as criminal fraudsters were distributed through various agencies, ruining the personal lives of tens of thousands of families. Under the partnerships that would be made possible by the Act, public authorities and companies would be able to abundantly share risk analyses, blacklists and many other types of data, suspicions and signals about citizens. The Dutch Data Protection Authority advised the Senate in November 2021 not to pass the law, stating that the proposal could lead to "Kafkaesque situations for large numbers of people".
The civil society coalition against SyRI consists of the Dutch Civil Rights Platform (Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten), the Dutch Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (NJCM), Dutch trade union FNV, the Dutch National Clients Council, Privacy First, the KDVP Foundation and authors Maxim Februari and Tommy Wieringa.
Download the recent letter by the coalition to the Dutch Senate HERE (pdf in Dutch).
Source: https://bijvoorbaatverdacht.nl/syri-coalitie-eerste-kamer-moet-datasurveillancewet-super-syri-afwijzen/, 15 February 2022.
The Privacy Collective takes Oracle and Salesforce to Court
The Privacy Collective press release
Millions of Dutch internet users victim of unlawful collection and use of personal data
The Privacy Collective takes Oracle and Salesforce to Court
The Privacy Collective - a foundation that acts against violation of privacy rights - is taking Oracle and Salesforce to Court. The foundation accuses the technology concerns of unlawfully collecting and processing data of millions of Dutch internet users. The foundation has launched a class action, a legal procedure in which compensation is claimed for a large group of individuals. It is the first time that this legal instrument is used in the Netherlands in a case of infringement of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm, lead lawyer in the case: “This is one of the largest cases of unlawful processing of personal data in the history of the internet. Almost every Dutch individual who reads or views information online is structurally affected by the practices of Oracle and Salesforce. Practices that merely serve a commercial purpose.”
Online shadow profile
Oracle and Salesforce collect data from website visitors at any time and on a large scale. By combining this with additional information, they create a personal profile of each individual internet user. The millions of profiles are used, among other things, to offer personalized online advertisements and unlawfully shared with numerous commercial parties, including ad-tech companies. The tech giants collect their information using - among other things - specially developed cookies. Alberdingk Thijm: “Most people do not know that they have such an online 'shadow profile'. They don't know what it looks like and have certainly not given legitimate consent.” For the collection and sharing of personal data, Oracle and Salesforce are obliged to ask for permission under the GDPR. “These parties violate internet users' right to privacy. The right to protection of personal data and the right to protection of privacy are recognized as fundamental rights", says Alberdingk Thijm.
The possibility to claim damages in a class action was recently created under Dutch law.“Claiming damages in a class action is an important tool to ensure the enforcement of the GDPR,” says Joris van Hoboken, a board member of the foundation and professor in Information Law. “It gives the GDPR teeth.” The Privacy Collective calls upon individual consumers to register with the foundation in order to show their support. Based on the number of victims, the total extent of the damage could exceed 10 billion euros. Several organizations support The Privacy Collective's campaign, including Privacy First, Bits of Freedom, Qiy Foundation and Freedom Internet. The claims are being fully funded by Innsworth, a litigation funder. The organization’s funding enables the benefits of scaling common claims in a collective action, without any individual claimants being exposed to litigation costs. Inssworth finances a similar class action in England and Wales, which is currently being prepared.
Source: The Privacy Collective press release, 14 August 2020.
More information: https://theprivacycollective.eu/en/.
Dutch risk profiling system SyRI banned following court decision
Today, the district court of The Hague ruled on the use of the algorithm-based system SyRI (System Risk Indication) by the Dutch government. The judges decided that the government, in trying to detect social services fraud, has to stop profiling citizens on the basis of large scale data analysis. As a result, people in the Netherlands are no longer 'suspected from the very start’ ("bij voorbaat verdacht").
The case against the Dutch government was brought by a coalition of NGOs, consisting of the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights (Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten), the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten, NJCM), Privacy First, the KDVP Foundation (privacy in mental healthcare), Dutch trade union FNV, the National Clients Council (LCR) and authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari.
The court concludes that SyRI is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. SyRI impinges disproportionately on the private life of citizens. This concerns not only those that SyRI has flagged as an 'increased risk', but everyone whose data are analysed by the system. According to the court, SyRI is non-transparent and therefore cannot be scrutinized. Citizens can neither anticipate the intrusion into their private life, nor can they guard themselves against it.
Moreover, the court draws attention to the actual risk of discrimination and stigmatization on the grounds of socio-economic status and possibly migration background, of citizens in disadvantaged urban areas where SyRI is being deployed. There is a risk – which cannot be examined – that SyRI operates on the basis of prejudices. The attorneys of the claimant parties, Mr. Ekker and Mr. Linders, had this to say: "The court confirms that the large scale linking of personal data is in violation of EU law, Dutch law and fundamental human rights, including the protection of privacy. Therefore, this ruling is also important for other European countries and on a wider international level."
From now on, as long as there is no well-founded suspicion, personal data from different sources may no longer be combined.
Line in the sand
"This ruling is an important line in the sand against the unbridled collection of data and risk profiling. The court puts a clear stop to the massive surveillance that innocent citizens have been under. SyRI and similar systems should be abolished immediately", states Privacy First director Vincent Böhre.
"Today we have been proved right on all fundamental aspects. This is a well-timed victory for the legal protection of all citizens in the Netherlands", says Tijmen Wisman of the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights.
Another plaintiff in the case, trade union FNV, equally rejects SyRI on principal grounds. "We are delighted that the court has now definitively cancelled SyRI", comments Kitty Jong, vice chair of FNV.
The parties hope that the ruling will herald a turning point in the way in which the government deals with the data of citizens. They believe this viewpoint is endorsed by the considerations of the court: these apply not only to SyRI, but also to similar practices. Many municipalities in the Netherlands have their own data linking systems which profile citizens for all sorts of policy purposes. When it comes to combining data, a legislative proposal that would be greater in scope than SyRI and would enable lumping together the databases of private parties and those of public authorities, was all but unthinkable. The decision by the Hague district court, however, clamps down on these Big Data practices. According to the claimant parties, it is therefore of crucial importance that the SyRI ruling will affect both current as well as future political policies.
The case against SyRI serves both a legal and a social goal. With this ruling, both goals are reached. Merel Hendrickx of PILP-NJCM: "Apart from stopping SyRI, we also aimed at initiating a public debate about the way the government deals with citizens in a society undergoing digitisation. This ruling shows how important it is to have that discussion."
Although SyRI was adopted in 2014 without any fuss, the discussion about its legality intensified after the lawsuit was announced. At the start of 2019, the use of SyRI in two Rotterdam neighbourhoods led to protests among inhabitants and a discussion in the municipal council. Soon after, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, pulled the plug on the SyRI program because of doubts over its legal basis. In June 2019, Dutch newspaper Volkskrant revealed that SyRI had not detected a single fraudster since its inception. In October 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, wrote a critical letter to the district court of The Hague expressing serious doubts over the legality of SyRI. Late November 2019, SyRI won a Big Brother Award.
The coalition of parties was represented in court by Anton Ekker (Ekker Advocatuur) and Douwe Linders (SOLV Attorneys). The proceedings were coordinated by the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the NJCM.
The full ruling of the court can be found HERE (official translation in English).
Court hearing in lawsuit against System Risk Indication (SyRI)
Fundamental lawsuit against mass risk profiling of unsuspected citizens
On Tuesday October 29 at 9:30 am in the district court of The Hague the court hearing will take place in the main proceedings of a broad coalition of Dutch civil society organizations against Systeem Risico Indicatie (System Risk Indication - SyRI). SyRI uses secret algorithms to screen entire residential areas to profile citizens on the risk of fraud with social services. According to the coalition of plaintiffs, this system poses a threat to the rule of law and SyRI must be declared unlawful.
The group of plaintiffs, consisting of the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights, the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (NJCM), the Privacy First Foundation, the KDVP Foundation and the National Client Council (LCR), in March 2018 sued the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs. Authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari, who previously spoke very critically about SyRI, joined the proceedings in their personal capacity. In July 2018, Dutch labour union FNV also joined the coalition.
The parties are represented by Anton Ekker (Ekker Advocatuur) and Douwe Linders (SOLV Attorneys). The case is coordinated by the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the NJCM.
Trawl method on unsuspected citizens
SyRI links the personal data of citizens from various government databases on a large scale. These centrally collected data are subsequently analyzed by secret algorithms. This should show whether citizens pose a risk of being guilty of one of the many forms of fraud and violations that the system covers. If the analysis of SyRI leads to a risk notification, then the citizen in question will be included in the so-called Risk Notices Register (Register Risicomeldingen), which can be accessed by government authorities.
SyRI uses this trawl method to screen all residents of a neighborhood or area. For this, the system uses almost all data that government authorities store about citizens. It comprises 17 data categories, which together provide a very intrusive picture of someone's private life. SyRI currently covers the databases of the Dutch Tax Authorities, Inspectorate of Social Affairs, Employment Office, Social Security Bank, municipalities and the Immigration Service. According to the Dutch Council of State (Raad van State), which gave a negative opinion on the SyRI bill, it was hard to imagine any data that did not fall within the scope of the system. Former chairman Kohnstamm of the Dutch Data Protection Authority, which also issued a negative opinion on the system, called the adoption of the SyRI legislation "dramatic" at the time.
Threat to the rule of law
According to the claimants, SyRI is a black box with major risks for the democratic rule of law. It is completely unclear to any citizen, who can be screened by SyRI without cause, what data are used for this, which analysis is carried out with it and what makes him or her a 'risk'. Moreover, due to the secret operation of SyRI, citizens are also unable to refute an incorrect risk indication. The use of SyRI makes the legal process and the associated procedures intransparent.
SyRI thereby undermines the relationship of trust between the government and its citizens; these citizens are in fact suspected in advance. Virtually all information that they share with the government, often to be eligible for basic services, can be used against them secretly without any suspicion.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are not opposed to the government combating fraud. They just think that this should be done on the basis of a concrete suspicion. There should be no trawl searches in the private life of unsuspected Dutch citizens to look for possible fraud risks. According to the claimants, this disproportionate method does more harm than good. There are better and less radical forms of fraud prevention than SyRI.
Not one fraudster detected yet
The total of five SyRI investigations that have been announced since the system's legal introduction have by now turned tens of thousands of citizens inside out, but have not yet detected one fraudster. This was revealed at the end of June 2019 by Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, which managed to get hold of evaluations of SyRI investigations. The investigations failed because the analyses were incorrect, due to lack of capacity and time at the implementing bodies, but also because there is disagreement within the government about SyRI.
For example, mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam pulled the plug from the SyRI investigation in two neighborhoods in Rotterdam South last summer, because the Ministry, unlike the municipality, also wanted to use police and healthcare data in the investigation. The deployment of SyRI also led to protest among the neighborhood's residents, who clearly showed that they felt insulted and unfairly treated.
UN expresses concern about SyRI
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston wrote to the court earlier this month about his concerns about SyRI and urged the judges to thoroughly assess the case. According to the rapporteur, several fundamental rights are at stake. SyRI is described in his letter as a digital equivalent of a social detective who visits every household in an area without permission and searches for fraudulent cases; in the analogue world such a massive manhunt would immediately lead to great resistance, but with a digital instrument such as SyRI, it is wrongly claimed that 'ignorance is bliss'.
The court hearing is open to the public and will take place on Tuesday October 29th from 9.30 am in the Palace of Justice, Prins Clauslaan 60 in The Hague. Case number: C/09/550982 HA ZA 18/388 (Nederlands Juristen Comité c.s./Staat).
Source: campaign website Bijvoorbaatverdacht.nl.
Dutch privacy violations on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Committee
On July 1 and 2, 2019, the Netherlands will be examined in Geneva by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This UN body is tasked with supervising the compliance of one of the oldest and most important human rights treaties in the world: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Each country which is a contracting party to the ICCPR is subject to periodical review by the UN Human Rights Committee. At the beginning of next week, the Dutch government must answer before the Committee for various current privacy issues that have been put on the agenda by Privacy First among others.
The previous Dutch session before the UN Human Rights Committee dates from July 2009, when the Dutch minister of Justice Ernst Hirsch Ballin had to answer for the then proposed central storage of fingerprints under the new Dutch Passport Act. This was a cause for considerable criticism of the Dutch government. Now, ten years on, the situation in the Netherlands will be examined once more. Against this background, Privacy First had submitted to the Committee a critical report (pdf) at the end of 2016, and has recently supplemented this with a new report (pdf). In a nutshell, Privacy First has brought the following current issues to the attention of the Committee:
- the limited admissibility of interest groups in class action lawsuits
- the Dutch ban on judicial review of the constitutionality of laws
- Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)
- border control camera system @MIGO-BORAS
- the Dutch public transport chip card ('OV-chipkaart')
- Electronic Health Record systems
- possible reintroduction of the Telecommunications Data Retention Act
- the new Dutch Intelligence and Security Services Act (‘Tapping Law’)
- Passenger Name Records (PNR)
- the Dutch abolition of consultative referendums
- the Dutch non-recognition of the international prohibition of propaganda for war.
The entire Dutch session before the Committee can be watched live on UN Web TV on Monday afternoon, July 1, and Tuesday morning, July 2. In addition to privacy issues, several Dutch organizations have put numerous other human rights issues on the agenda of the Committee; click HERE for an overview, which also features the previously established List of Issues (including the new Intelligence and Security Services Act, the possible reintroduction of the retention of telecommunications data, camera system @MIGO-BORAS, and medical confidentiality with health insurance companies). The Committee will likely present its ‘Concluding Observations’ within a matter of weeks. Privacy First awaits the outcome of these observations with confidence.
Update July 26, 2019: yesterday afternoon the Committee has published its Concluding Observations on the human rights situation in the Netherlands, which includes critical opinions on two privacy issues that were brought to the attention of the Committee by Privacy First:
The Intelligence and Security Services Act
The Committee is concerned about the Intelligence and Security Act 2017, which provides intelligence and security services with broad surveillance and interception powers, including bulk data collection. It is particularly concerned that the Act does not seem to provide for a clear definition of bulk data collection for investigation related purpose; clear grounds for extending retention periods for information collected; and effective independent safeguards against bulk data hacking. It is also concerned by the limited practical possibilities for complaining, in the absence of a comprehensive notification regime to the Dutch Oversight Board for the Intelligence and Security Services (CTIVD) (art. 17).
The State party should review the Act with a view to bringing its definitions and the powers and limits on their exercise in line with the Covenant and strengthen the independence and effectiveness of CTIVD and the Committee overseeing intelligence efforts and competences that has been established by the Act.
The Market Healthcare Act
The Committee is concerned that the Act to amend the Market Regulation (Healthcare) Act allows health insurance company medical consultants access to individual records in the electronic patient registration without obtaining a prior, informed and specific consent of the insured and that such practice has been carried out by health insurance companies for many years (art. 17).
The State party should require insurance companies to refrain from consulting individual medical records without a consent of the insured and ensure that the Bill requires health insurance companies to obtain a prior and informed consent of the insured to consult their records in the electronic patient registration and provide for an opt-out option for patients that oppose access to their records.
During the session in Geneva the abolition of the referendum and the camera system @MIGO-BORAS were also critically looked at. However, Privacy First regrets that the Committee makes no mention of these and various other current issues in its Concluding Observations. Nevertheless, the report by the Committee shows that the issue of privacy is ever higher on the agenda of the United Nations. Privacy First welcomes this development and will continue in the coming years to encourage the Committee to go down this path. Moreover, Privacy First will ensure that the Netherlands will indeed implement the various recommendations by the Committee.
The entire Dutch Session before the Committee can be watched on UN Web TV (1 July and 2 July). See also the extensive UN reports, part 1 and part 2 (pdf).
PNR: Every airline passenger a potential suspect
Today an important debate will take place in the Dutch House of Representatives about the introduction of Passenger Name Records (PNR): the large scale, years-long storage of all sorts of data of airline passengers, supposedly to fight crime and terrorism. Privacy First has major objections and at the end of last week has sent the following letter to the House. Today’s parliamentary debate was first scheduled to take place on 14 May 2018, but was cancelled (following a similar letter from Privacy First) until further notice. Following new parliamentary questions, the debate will now take place today after all. Here is the full text of our most recent letter:
Dear Members of the House of Representatives,
On Monday afternoon, this 11 March, you will discuss the Dutch implementation of the European directive on Passenger Name Records (PNR) with minister Grapperhaus (Justice and Security). In Privacy First’s view, both the European PNR directive as well as the Dutch implementation thereof are legally untenable. We shall here briefly elucidate our position.
Under the minister’s legislative proposal concerning PNR, numerous data of every single airline passenger travelling to or from the Netherlands will be stored for five years in a central government database of the new Passenger Information Unit and will be used to prevent, investigate and prosecute crimes and terrorism. Sensitive personal data (such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, dates of birth, travel data, ID document numbers, destinations, fellow passengers and payment data) of many millions of passengers will, as a result, become available for many years for the purpose of data mining and profiling. In essence, this means that every airline passenger will be treated as a potential criminal or terrorist. In 99.9% of all cases, however, this concerns perfectly innocent citizens, mainly holidaymakers and business travellers. This is a flagrant breach of their right to privacy and freedom of movement. Last year, Privacy First had already made these arguments in the Volkskrant and on BNR Nieuwsradio. Because of privacy objections, in recent years there has been a lot of political resistance to such large scale PNR storage of data, which has been rejected by both the House of Representatives as well as the European Parliament on several occasions since 2010. In 2015, Dutch ruling parties VVD and PvdA were absolutely opposed to PNR as well. Back then, they called it a ‘holiday register’ and they themselves threatened to take to the European Court of Justice in case the PNR directive would be adopted. However, after the attacks in Paris and Brussels, it seemed that many political restraints had evaporated and in 2016, the PNR directive finally came about after all. Up to now however, the legally required necessity and proportionality of this directive have still to be demonstrated.
In the summer of 2017, the European Court of Justice issued an important ruling with regard to the similar PNR agreement between the EU and Canada. The Court declared this agreement invalid because it violates the right to privacy. Among other things, the Court held that the envisaged agreement must, “limit the retention of PNR data after the air passengers’ departure to that of passengers in respect of whom there is objective evidence from which it may be inferred that they may present a risk in terms of the fight against terrorism and serious transnational crime.” (See Opinion 1/15 (26 July 2017), par. 207.) Ever since this ruling, the European PNR directive is a legal uncertainty. Therefore, the Dutch government has valid ‘‘concerns about the future viability of the PNR directive” (see Note in response to report, p. 23, in Dutch). Privacy First expects that the current PNR directive will soon be submitted to the European Court of Justice for judicial review and will then be declared unlawful. Subsequently, a situation will arise that is similar to the one we have witnessed a few years ago with regard to the European Telecommunications Data Retention Act: as soon as this European directive will be annulled, the Dutch implementing provisions will equally be invalidated in interim injunction proceedings.
The current Dutch PNR legislative proposal seems unlawful a priori because of a lack of demonstrable necessity, proportionality and subsidiarity. The legislative proposal comes down to mass surveillance of mostly innocent citizens; in the 2016 Tele2 case the European Court already ruled that this type of legislation is unlawful. Thereupon the Netherlands pledged before the UN Human Rights Council “to ensure that the collection and maintenance of data for criminal [investigation] purposes does not entail massive surveillance of innocent persons.” The Netherlands now seems to renege on that promise. After all, a lot of completely unnecessary data of every airline passenger will be stored for years and can be used by various Dutch, European and even non-European government agencies. Moreover, the effectiveness of PNR has to date never been demonstrated, the minister himself affirmed: ‘‘There is no statistical support” (see Note in response to report, p. 8, in Dutch). The risk of unjust suspicion and discrimination (due to fallible algorithms used for profiling) under the proposed PNR system is serious, which also increases the likelihood of delays and missed flights for innocent passengers. All the while, wanted persons will often stay under the radar and choose alternative travel routes. Furthermore, the legislative proposal entirely fails to address the role and capabilities of secret services, which will be granted secret and shielded access to the central PNR database under the new Dutch Intelligence and Security Services Act. However, the most questionable aspect of the Dutch PNR legislative proposal is that it goes even two steps further than the European PNR directive itself: After all, it is the Dutch government's own decision to also store the data of passengers on all intra-EU flights. This is not obligatory under the PNR directive, and the Netherlands could have limited this to preselected flights (judged to be at risk) only. This would have been in line with the advice of most experts in this field who argue for targeted actions as opposed to mass surveillance. In other words, to focus on persons with a reasonable suspicion about them, in accordance with the principles of our democracy under the rule of law.
Privacy First Advice
Privacy First strongly advises you to reject the current legislative proposal and to replace it with a privacy-friendly version. In case this will lead to the European Commission referring the Netherlands to the European Court of Justice due to a lack of implementation of the present PNR directive, Privacy First would be confident this would end in a clear victory for the Netherlands. EU Member States simply cannot be expected to implement privacy-violating EU rules. This applies equally to the national implementation of relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council (in this case UNSC Res. 2396 (2017)) which is similarly at odds with international human rights law. In this respect, Privacy First has already warned of the abuse of the Dutch TRIP system (which is also used for PNR) by other UN Member States. In this regard, the Netherlands has its own responsibility under the Dutch Constitution as well as under international law.
Privacy First Foundation
Update 19 March 2019: Regrettably, today the House of Representatives has adopted the legislative proposal almost unchanged; only GroenLinks, SP, PvdD and Denk voted against. Unfortunately, a motion by GroenLinks and SP to provoke legal action by the European Commission against the Dutch government about the PNR directive was rejected. The only bright spot is the widely adopted motion for the judicial reassessment and possible revision of the PNR directive at a European political level. (Only PVV and FvD voted against this motion.) Next stop: the Senate.
Update 4 June 2019: despite sending the above letter for a second time and despite other critical input by Privacy First, the Senate today has unfortunately adopted the legislative proposal. Only GroenLinks, PvdD and SP voted against. Even in spite of the enormous error rates (false positives) of 99.7% that recently came to light in the comparable German PNR system, see https://www.sueddeutsche.de/digital/fluggastdaten-bka-falschtreffer-1.4419760. Meanwhile, large scale cases have been brought against the European PNR directive in Germany and Austria in order for the European Court of Justice to nullify it on account of violations of the right to privacy, see the German-English campaign website https://nopnr.eu and https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2019/05/15/burgers-in-verzet-tegen-opslaan-passagiersgegevens-a3960431. As soon as the European Court rules that the PNR directive is unlawful, Privacy First will start interim injunction proceedings in order for the Dutch PNR law to be rendered inoperative. Moreover, yesterday Privacy First has put the PNR law on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. On 1 and 2 July 2019, the overall human rights situation in the Netherlands (including violations of the right to privacy) will be critically reviewed by this Committee.
Privacy First New Year’s column
Writing a New Year’s Column about the state of affairs concerning the protection of everyone’s privacy weighs me down this year. With the exception of a few bright spots, privacy in the Netherlands and the rest of the world has greatly deteriorated. For a while it seemed that the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 about secret services tracking everyone’s online behavior would be a rude wake-up call for the world. It was thought that an increasing number of data breaches and a rising number of governments and companies getting hacked, would make people realize that large amounts of data stored centrally is not the solution. The Arab Spring in 2015 would bring about major change through the unprecedented use of (social) media.
The European Union successfully voted against the exchange of data relating to travel movements, paved the way for the current General Data Protection Regulation and seemed to become the shining alternative example under the guidance of Germany, a country known for its vigilance when it comes to privacy. Unfortunately, things turned out differently. Under the Obama administration, Snowden was shunned as a traitor and other whistleblowers were clamped down on harder than ever before. Julian Assange was forced into exile while murdering people with the use of drones and without any form of trial was implemented on a large scale. Extrajudicial killings with collateral damage... While the discussion was about waterboarding... Discussions on such ‘secondary topics’ have by now become commonplace in politics, and so has the framing and blaming of opponents in the polarized public debate (the focus is usually on the person rather than on the argument itself).
Looking back on 2018, Privacy First identifies a great number of areas where the breakdown of privacy is evident:
Government & privacy
In March, an advisory referendum in the Netherlands was held on the introduction of the so-called Tapping law. Immediately after that, the referendum was abrogated. This happened in a time of unprecedented technological possibilities to organize referendums in various ways in a shared democracy. That’s outrageous. The outcome of the referendum was not taken into account and the Tapping law was introduced just like that. Moreover, it turned out that all along, the Dutch Minister of the Interior had withheld an important report on the functioning of the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service.
Apparently this was nothing to worry about and occurred without any consequences. The recent report by the Dutch State Commission on the (re)introduction of referendums will likely end up in a drawer, not to be looked at again.
Fear of losing one’s role and the political mood of the day are all too important in a culture in which ‘professional politicians’ are afraid to make mistakes, but which is full of incidents nonetheless. One’s job or profession comes first, representing citizens comes second. Invariably, incidents are put under a magnifying glass in order to push through binding legislation with a broad scope. Without the review of compliance with guiding principles such as necessity, purpose limitation, subsidiarity and proportionality. There is an ever wider gap between government and citizens, who are not trusted but are expected to be fully transparent towards that self-same government. A government that time and again appears to be concealing matters from citizens. A government that is required by law to protect and promote privacy, but is itself still the most prominent privacy-violator.
The medical establishment & privacy
In this area things got really out of hand in 2018. Through various coordinated media offensives, the EU and the member states are trying to make us believe in the advantages of relinquishing our right to physical integrity and our humanity. Sharing biometric data with the United States continues unabatedly. We saw the police calling for compulsory DNA databases, compulsory vaccination programs, the use of smart medicines with microchips and the phasing out of alternative therapies. Furthermore, health insurance companies cautiously started to cover genetic testing and increasingly doing away with medical confidentiality, the Organ Donation Act was introduced and microchips implanted in humans (the cyborg as the highest ideal in Silicon Valley propaganda) became ever more popular.
How long before microchips become compulsory for all citizens? All (domestic) animals in the EU have already preceded us. And then there’s the Electronic Health Record, which was first rejected in the Dutch Senate but has reappeared on the minister’s agenda via a detour. Driven by commercial interests, it is being rammed down the throats of general practitioners while alternatives such as Whitebox are not taken seriously. The influence of Big Pharma through lobbying with government bodies and participating in government working groups is particularly acute. They closely cooperate with a few IT companies to realize their ideal of large and centralized networks and systems. It’s their year-end bonus and growth at the expense of our freedom and well-being.
Media & privacy
Naturally, we cannot overlook ‘fake news’. One of the premises for having privacy is being able to form your own opinion and respect and learn from the opinions of others. Furthermore, independent left and right-wing media are essential in a democratic constitutional State. It's their task to monitor the functioning of elected and unelected representatives in politics and in government. Journalists should be able to penetrate into the capillaries of society in order to produce local, national and global news.
Ever since free news gathering came about, it has been a challenge to obtain news based on facts. It’s not always easy to distinguish a press service, PR and propaganda from one another. In times of rapid technological changes and new opportunities, they should be continuously reviewed according to the principles of journalism. That’s nothing new. What is new, however, is that the European Union and our own Minister for the Interior, Kajsa Ollongren, feel they’re doing the right thing by outsourcing censorship to social media companies that are active on a global scale and have proven to be unreliable.
While Facebook and Google have to defend themselves in court for spreading fake news and censoring accounts, the governments hand over the monitoring task to them. The privacy violators and fake news distributors as the guardians of our privacy and journalism. That’s the world upside down. By so doing, this minister and this government undermine the constitutional State and show disdain for intelligent citizens. It’s time for a structural change in our media system, based on new technologies such as blockchain and the founding of a government media office whose task is to fund all media outlets through citizens’ contributions, taking into account the media’s scope and number of members. So that concerns all media, including the so-called alternative media, which should not be censored.
Finance & privacy
The erosion of one’s privacy increasingly manifests itself at a financial level too. The fact of the matter is, that the tax authorities already know in detail what the spending pattern of all companies and citizens looks like. Thanks to the Tapping Law, they can now pass on this information in real-time to the secret services (the General Intelligence and Security Service is watching along). Furthermore, a well-intended initiative such as PSD2 is being introduced in a wholly improvident and privacy-unfriendly way: basic conditions relating to the ownership of bank details (of citizens, account holders) are devoid of substance. Simple features such as selective sharing of banking details, for example according to the type of payment or time period, are not available. What’s more, payment details of third parties who have not given their consent, are sent along.
In the meantime, the ‘cash = criminal’ campaign goes on relentlessly. The right to cash and anonymous payment disappears, despite even the Dutch Central Bank now warning that the role of cash is crucial to our society. Privacy First has raised its opinion on this topic already in 2016 during a public debate. The latest development in this regard is the further linking of information through Big Data and profiling by debt-collecting agencies and public authorities. Excluding citizens from the electronic monetary system as a new form of punishment instead of letting them pay fines is a not so distant prospect. In this regard, a lot of experimentation is going on in China and there have been calls in Europe to move in the same direction, supposedly in order to fight terrorism. In other words, in the future it will become increasingly difficult to raise your voice and organize against abuse of power by governments and companies: from on high it takes only the press of a button and you may no longer be able to withdraw cash, travel or carry out online activities. In which case you have become an electronic outcast, banished from society.
Public domain & privacy
In 2018, privacy in public space has all but improved. Whereas 20 years ago, the Netherlands was deemed too small to require everyone out on the streets to be able to identify themselves, by now, all governments and municipalities in Europe are developing ‘smart city’ concepts. If you ask what the benefits and use of a smart city are (beyond the permanent supervision of citizens), proponents will say something vague about traffic problems and that the 'killer applications' will become visible only once the network of beacons is in place. In other words, there are absolutely no solid figures which would justify the necessity, subsidiarity and proportionality of smart cities. And that’s not even taking basic civil rights such as privacy into consideration.
Just to give a few examples:
- ANPR legislation applies from 1 January 2019 (all travel movements on public roads will be stored in a centralized police database for four weeks)
- A database consisting of all travel movements and stays of European citizens and toll rates as per 2023
- Emergency chips in every vehicle with a two-way communication feature (better known as spyware) as per 1 January 2019
- Cameras and two-way communication in public space, built into the lampposts among other objects as part of smart city projects
- A decision to introduce additional cameras in public transport as per 2019
- The introduction of Smart Cities and the introduction of unlimited beacons (doesn’t it sound so much better than electronic concentration camp posts?)
- Linking together all traffic centers and control rooms (including those of security companies operating on the private market)
- Citizens are permanently monitored by invisible and unknown eyes.
Private domain & privacy
It’s well known that governments and companies are keen to take a peek in our homes, but the extent to which this was being advanced last year, was outside of all proportion. Let’s start with energy companies, who foist compulsory smart meters on citizens. By way of ‘appointment to install a smart meter’, which you didn’t ask for, it’s almost impossible to stay clear of red tape. After several cancellations on my part and phone calls to energy provider Nuon, they simply continued to push forward. I still don’t have a smart meter and it will stay like that.
Once again Silicon Valley featured prominently in the news in 2018. Unelected dictatorial executives who are no less powerful than many a nation state, promote their utopias as trendy and modern among citizens. Self-driving cars take the autonomy and joy away from citizens (the number of accidents is very small considering the millions of cars on the road each day), while even children can tell that a hybrid approach is the only option. The implementation of smart speakers by these social media companies is downright spooky. By bringing smart toys onto the market, toy manufacturers equally respond to the needs that we all seem to have. We can all too readily guess what these developments will mean for our privacy. The manipulation of facts and images as well as distortion, will starkly increase.
Children & privacy
Children and youths represent the future and nothing of the above bodes well for them. Screen addiction is sharply on the rise and as children are being raised amidst propaganda and fake news, much more attention should go out to forming one’s own opinion and taking responsibility. Centralized pupil monitoring systems are introduced indifferently in the education system, information is exchanged with parents and not having interactive whiteboards and Ipads in the classroom has become unthinkable. The first thing children see every single day, is a screen with Google on it... Big Brother.
Dependence on the internet and social media results in impulsive behaviour among children, exposes them to the madness of the day and affects their historical awareness and ability to discern underlying links. The way of thinking at universities is becoming increasingly one-sided and undesirable views are marginalized. The causes of problems are not examined, books are not read though there is certainly no lack of opinions. It’s all about making your voice heard within the limits of self-censorship that’s in force in order to prevent becoming the odd one out in the group. The same pattern can be identified when it comes to forming opinions in politics, where discussing various issues based on facts seems no longer possible. Not to mention that the opinions of citizens are considered irrelevant by our politicians. Good quality education focused on forming opinions and on creating self-reflective minds instead of a robot-way of thinking, is essential for the development of a healthy democracy.
Are there any positive developments?
It's no easy task to identify any positive developments in the field of privacy. The fact is that the introduction of the GDPR and the corresponding option to impose fines has brought privacy more sharply into focus among companies and citizens than the revelations of Snowden have been able to do. The danger of the GDPR, however, is that it narrows down privacy to data protection and administrative red tape.
Another positive development is the growing number of (as of yet small) initiatives whereby companies and governments consider privacy protection as a business or PR opportunity. This is proved by the number of participants in the 2019 Dutch Privacy Awards. Recurring themes are means of anonymous communication (email, search engines, browsers), possible alternatives to social networks (messaging services like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) on the basis of subscriptions, blockchain technology and privacy by design projects by large organizations and companies.
Privacy First has teamed up with a few top quality pro bono attorneys who are prepared to represent us in court. However, judges are reluctant to go off the beaten track and come up with progressive rulings in cases such as those concerning number plate parking, average speed checks, Automatic Number Plate Recognition, the Tapping Law, etc. For years, Privacy First has been suffering from a lack of funding. Many of those who sympathize with us, find the topic of privacy a bit eerie. They support us morally but don’t dare to make a donation. After all, you draw attention to yourself when you’re concerned with issues such as privacy. That’s how bad things have become; fear and self-censorship... two bad counsellors! It’s high time for a government that seriously deals with privacy issues.
Constitutional reform should urgently be placed on the agenda
Privacy First is a great proponent of constitutional reform (see our 2017 New Year’s column about Shared Democracy), based on the principles of the democratic constitutional State and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Our democracy is only 150 years old and should be adapted to this current day and age. This means that the structure of the EU should be changed. Citizens should take on a central and active role. Government policies should focus on technological developments in order to reinforce democracy and formulate a response to the concentration of power of multinational companies.
Privacy First argues that the establishment of a Ministry of Technology has the highest priority in order to be able to stay up to date with the rapid developments in this field and produce adequate policies accordingly. It should live up to the standards of the ECHR and the Dutch Constitution and avoid becoming a victim of the increasing lobbying efforts in this sector. Moreover, it is time for a Minister of IT & Privacy who stays up to date on all developments and acts with sufficient powers and in accordance with the review of a Constitutional Court.
The protection of citizens’ privacy should be facilitated and there should be privacy-friendly alternatives for current services by technology companies. For 2019, Privacy First has a few tips for ordinary citizens:
- Watch out for and stay away from ‘smart’ initiatives on the basis of Big Data and profiling!
- Keep an eye on the ‘cash = criminal’ campaign. Make at least 50% of your payments anonymously in cash.
- Be cautious when communicating through Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Look for or develop new platforms based on Quantum AI encryption and use alternative browsers (TOR), networks (VPN) and search engines (Startpage).
- Be careful when it comes to medical data and physical integrity. Use your right for there to be no exchange of medical data as long as initiatives such as Whitebox are not used.
- Be aware of your right to stay anonymous, at home and in public space. Campaign against toll payment, microchips in number plates, ANPR and number plate parking.
- Be aware of your legal rights to bring lawsuits, for example against personalized waste disposal passes, camera surveillance, etc.
- Watch out for ‘smart’ meters, speakers, toys and other objects in the house connected to the internet. Purchase only privacy by design solutions with privacy enhanced technology!
The Netherlands and Europe as guiding nations in the field of privacy, with groundbreaking initiatives and solutions for apparent contradictions concerning privacy and security issues - that’s Privacy First's aim. There’s still a long way to go, however, and we’re being blown off course ever more. That’s due in part because a comprehensive vision on our society and a democracy 3.0 is lacking. So we continue to drift rudderless, ending up in the big manipulation machine of large companies one step at a time. We need many more yellow vests before things change. Privacy First would like to contribute to shaping and promoting a comprehensive, positive vision for the future. A future based on the principles that our society was built on and the need for greater freedom, with all the inevitable restrictions this entails. We will have to do it together. Please support Privacy First actively with a generous donation for your own freedom and that of your children in 2019!
To an open and free society! I wish everyone a lot of privacy in 2019 and beyond!
Bas Filippini, Privacy First chairman
Civil rights groups sue Dutch government for risk profiling citizens
A group of civil society organizations is bringing a case against the Dutch government because of System Risk Indication, better known by the abbreviation SyRI. According to the plaintiffs, this risk profiling system is a black box that should be stopped as it forms a risk to the democratic rule of law.
The coalition of plaintiffs consists of the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (NJCM), the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights (Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten), Privacy First, the KDVP Foundation (privacy in mental healthcare) and the National Clients Council (LCR). Two well-known authors, Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari, have in their individual capacities joined the case as plaintiffs. As ‘ambassadors’ to this lawsuit, they have fiercely criticized SyRI on multiple occasions.
The proceedings are carried out by Deikwijs Attorneys under the guidance of the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the NJCM.
Trawl net actions on the basis of secret algorithms targeting innocent citizens
SyRI links together on a large scale personal data of innocent citizens from databases of public authorities and companies. With the use of secret algorithms, citizens are subsequently subjected to a risk analysis. When there is an increased risk of breaking one of the many laws that SyRI covers, individuals are included in the Risk Reports Register, which is accessible to many government agencies.
SyRI is a black box that poses a major threat to the democratic rule of law. Citizens who are being examined through SyRI without any justification, have absolutely no idea which of their data are being used for analyses, what kind of analyses are being carried out and what actually determines whether or not they are a ‘risk’. Because SyRI works surreptitiously, citizens are not in a position to refute any incorrect flagging that may concern them.
According to the coalition, SyRI is in breach of various fundamental rights while it simultaneously undermines the relationship of trust between citizens and those in power. Citizens are suspect from the very start and all of the information that they share with public authorities, may secretly be used against them without imputation or concrete ground.
Ministry refuses to operate in a transparent manner
Despite fundamental objections from the Dutch Council of State (Raad van State) and the Dutch Data Protection Authority about the lawfulness of the system, at the end of 2014 the legislation for SyRI was rubber-stamped by the Dutch Senate and the House of Representatives. However, SyRI has been in use ever since 2008 already. Since then, dozens of investigations have been carried out and this included examining entire neighborhoods in several Dutch cities. Once the system was specified in law, it has been applied in Eindhoven and Capelle aan den IJssel among other places. It was recently announced that SyRI will be used in the Rotterdam neighborhoods of Bloemhof en Hillesluis and in the Haarlem neighborhood of Schalkwijk.
A FOIA request submitted by the coalition has resulted in barely any information concerning the dozens of SyRI investigations that have been carried out prior to and after the system had been laid down in law in 2014. The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs is unwilling to provide insight into its practices arguing that, by disclosing the data and risk models that are used in SyRI, cunning citizens would become aware what to look out for when they commit fraud. The claimants, in their turn, assert that this is not in line with the obligation to inform and the right to a fair trial.
In the context of this lawsuit, a public information campaign called ‘Bij Voorbaat Verdacht’ (‘Suspect From The Very Start’) has been launched. On the (Dutch) campaign website you can find updates about the legal proceedings as well as a simplified summary of the subpoena. The complete subpoena (in Dutch) can be found on the website of Deikwijs Attorneys (pdf). Click HERE for the English version on the website of PILP (pdf).
Update 16 October 2018: the District Court of The Hague has allowed the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (FNV) as co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The Netherlands under the United Nations magnifying glass
Tomorrow morning the Netherlands will be examined in Geneva by the highest human rights body in the world: the United Nations Human Rights Council. Since 2008, the Human Rights Council reviews the human rights situation in each UN Member State once every five years. This procedure is called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
Privacy First shadow report
During the previous two UPR sessions in 2008 and 2012, the Netherlands endured a fair amount of criticism. At the moment, the perspectives with regard to privacy in the Netherlands are worse than they’ve ever been before. This is reason for Privacy First to actively bring a number of issues to the attention of the UN. Privacy First did so in September 2016 (a week prior to the UN deadline), through a so-called shadow report: a report in which civil society organizations express their concerns about certain issues. (It’s worth pointing out that the Human Rights Council imposes rigorous requirements on these reports, a strict word limit being one of them.) UN diplomats rely on these reports in order to properly carry out their job. Otherwise, they would depend on one-sided State-written reports that mostly provide a far too optimistic view. So Privacy First submitted its own report about the Netherlands (pdf), which includes the following recommendations:
Better opportunities in the Netherlands for civil society organizations to collectively institute legal proceedings.
Introduction of constitutional review of laws by the Dutch judiciary.
Better legislation pertaining to profiling and datamining.
No introduction of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) as is currently being envisaged.
Suspension of the unregulated border control system @MIGO-BORAS.
No reintroduction of large scale data retention (general Data Retention Act).
No mass surveillance under the new Intelligence and Security Services Act and closer judicial supervision over secret services.
Withdrawal of the Computer Criminality Act III , which will allow the Dutch police to hack into any ICT device.
A voluntary and regionally organized (instead of a national) Electronic Health Record system with privacy by design.
Introduction of an anonymous public transport chip card that is truly anonymous.
You can find our entire report HERE (pdf). The reports from other organizations can be found HERE.
Privacy First did not sent its report only to the Human Rights Council but also forwarded it to all the foreign embassies in The Hague. Consequently, Privacy First had extensive (confidential) meetings in recent months with the embassies of Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Chili, Germany, Greece and Tanzania. The positions of our interlocutors varied from senior diplomats to ambassadors. Furthermore, Privacy First received positive reactions to its report from the embassies of Mexico, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Moreover, several passages from our report were integrated in the UN summary of the overall human rights situation in the Netherlands; click HERE ('Summary of stakeholders' information', par. 47-50).
Our efforts will hopefully prove to have been effective tomorrow. However, this cannot be guaranteed as it concerns an inter-State, diplomatic process and many issues in our report (and in recent talks) are sensitive subjects in countless other UN Member States as well.
UN Human Rights Committee
In December 2016, Privacy First submitted a similar report to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. This Committee periodically reviews the compliance of the Netherlands with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Partly as a result of this report, last week the Committee put the Intelligence and Security Services Act, camera system @MIGO-BORAS and the Data Retention Act among other things, on the agenda for the upcoming Dutch session in 2018 (see par. 11, 27).
We hope that our input will be used by both the UN Human Rights Council as well as the UN Human Rights Committee and that it will lead to constructive criticism and internationally exchangeable best practices.
The Dutch UPR session will take place tomorrow between 9am and 12.30pm and can be followed live online.
Update 10 May 2017: during the UPR session in Geneva today, the Dutch government delegation (led by Dutch Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Plasterk) received critical recommendations on human rights and privacy in relation to counter-terrorism by Canada, Germany, Hungary, Mexico and Russia. The entire UPR session can be viewed HERE. Publication of all recommendations by the UN Human Rights Council follows May 12th.
Update 12 May 2017: Today all recommendations to the Netherlands have been published by the UN Human Rights Council, click HERE (pdf). Useful recommendations to the Netherlands regarding the right to privacy were made by Germany, Canada, Spain, Hungary, Mexico and Russia, see paras. 5.29, 5.30, 5.113, 5.121, 5.128 & 5.129. You can find these recommendations below. Further comments by Privacy First will follow.
Extend the National Action Plan on Human Rights to cover all relevant human rights issues, including counter-terrorism, government surveillance, migration and human rights education (Germany);
Extend the National Action Plan on Human Rights, published in 2013 to cover all relevant human rights issues, including respect for human rights while countering terrorism, and ensure independent monitoring and evaluation of the Action Plan (Hungary);
Review any adopted or proposed counter-terrorism legislation, policies, or programs to provide adequate safeguards against human rights violations and minimize any possible stigmatizing effect such measures might have on certain segments of the population (Canada);
Take necessary measures to ensure that the collection and maintenance of data for criminal [investigation] purposes does not entail massive surveillance of innocent persons (Spain);
Adopt and implement specific legislation on collection, use and accumulation of meta-data and individual profiles, including in security and anti-terrorist activities, guaranteeing the right to privacy, transparency, accountability, and the right to decide on the use, correction and deletion of personal data (Mexico);
Ensure the protection of private life and prevent cases of unwarranted access of special agencies in personal information of citizens in the Internet that have no connection with any illegal actions (Russian Federation). [sic]
Update 26 May 2017: a more comprehensive UN report of the UPR session has now been published (including the 'interactive dialogue' between UN Member States and the Netherlands); click HERE (pdf). In September this year, the Dutch government will announce which recommendations it will accept and implement.
Big Brother as a new form of society?
Shocking news reached us last week from the United States regarding the eavesdropping scandal that involves the US government. The digital state terrorism under Obama Bin Laden (the difference is really just a mere letter) has only been further institutionalized in his terms of office and undermines the basis of the democratic constitutional state inside and outside of America. Everyone’s a suspect, massive data storage and then continuous, real-time profiling of every citizen, in particular the citizens and organizations the governments dislikes. ‘’Just trust us, we don’t actually trust you.’’ One-sided transparency, citizens without any form of privacy, the government shielded by so-called state security protocols and always at war with an unknown enemy, so ‘’everything is permissible‘’.
- A democracy is characterized by administrative transparency and respect for the private life of citizens. Within a dictatorship things are exactly the other way around: transparency of private life and administrative secrecy are the norm. To what extent is America still democratic? Over there whistleblowers that represent fundamental rights and real patriots in the true sense of the word are portrayed as terrorists.
- 29-year old Edward Snowden is committed to his own principles and is now forced to seek asylum far away from the United States.
- After having revealed abuses by that same government, Julian Assange felt the need to flee to the Ecuadorian embassy in London where, by now, he’s been holed up for over a year.
- Where are the days when such people got the credit they deserved? Not that long ago, during the Watergate Scandal, the American president had to resign. It also brings to mind George Orwell’s newspeak: simply turning everything around, denying, lying, deceiving. So here we have it: the government that sold "change" and "hope" to its own people and the world.
A few hopeful changes à la Obama:
- Guantanamo Bay is still open and its prisoners have been held there for years without any form of fair trial and with no way out; secret courts are the norm.
- Everywhere in the world, unwanted citizens and innocent citizens are pre-emptively eliminated without any form of trial, judicial process or evidence through the use of drones, which additionally violates the sovereign airspace of foreign states. In case a drone crashes, instead of apologizing for violating international law, the drone is ordered back in no uncertain terms.
- By now hundreds of pilots are trained to fly drones and to kill "suspects" in a computer game-like way.
- Echelon, Carnivore and other data-collection programs are now complemented by PRISM, in order to be able to create a "digital life file" of every citizen, used to analyze the past, the present and possibly future behavior and ways of thinking. In case these ways of thinking are not to the government’s liking, the words "terrorist" and "part of a criminal organization" are immediately proclaimed and a profiling program commenced. This shameless infringement of the right to a private life takes place under the guise of terrorism prevention.
- Whereas in the past citizens under reasonable suspicion of a crime could be tracked on the basis of a judicial decision and whereas control was specifically aimed at foreigners in the home country, nowadays it’s every citizen’s turn without judicial interference and in the US, already 5 million officials of the State have access to such classified information. And the target within PRISM very clearly is the entire world and all (forms of) communication. Welcome to the new world! Data macht frei!
- Now the Obama administration is in the possession of these data, they are directly abused as well, for example by not handing out permits or by carrying out extra tax controls on dissenting groups. For years Privacy First has warned of function creep when it comes to this kind of legislation and the execution thereof. In this respect the Patriot Act is the least patriotic law (newspeak) since the coming into existence of the US and is applied all the time to be infinitely abused by the government, also outside of the US.
This was just a brief overview of cases that have come to the surface. Privacy First is especially bothered by the lack of self-reflection and self-control that governments display. "Is it technically possible? Then let’s do it!"
Instead of having a democratic discussion and offering a content-related reaction including apologies, or instead of the people responsible resigning, an immediate attack is launched and a sideway discussion started, exactly similar to the Wikileaks Affair:
- Everything is inverted, the whistleblowers are terrorists and privacy fetishists who are actually weak and sensitive, characteristics that need to be eliminated immediately.
- Immediately diverting the question away from the topic and focussing on the mistakes made within the organization with the aim to eliminate whistleblowers; how can it be these whistleblowers have not been detected earlier?
- The subsequent phase is the stigmatization of the whistleblower, saying that more resolute action is needed to discourage other intelligent people with common sense and a democratic vision to undertake any such actions.
- After that comes the stigmatization of those holding different views and the press; the disgraceful free press that dares to publish such information: there has already been a call to prosecute any press that collaborates with whistleblowers. An immediate counter attack and you don’t need to talk about the content, a very easy option!
- It is allowed by law through the Patriot Act! Instead of calling this law into question when true patriots that are committed to principles reveal abuses.
- Shamelessly asserting that nothing’s going on when information is shared without the permission of citizens from other countries, with the argument that it’s convenient and that the government knows what is good for citizens. And all of this from a line of thinking dominated by fear, without a privacy-friendly alternative.
Time and again the government evades the real debate about reinforcing the fundamental principles of the democratic society on the basis of faith, about stimulating individual responsibility of citizens and, where necessary, about modifying the system with technology in order to improve the democratic process. The US government, like many other governments, has totally gone out of its mind and has forgotten it serves the interests of its citizens and the democratic fundamental principles instead of the other way around.
Privacy First makes a call to all pressure groups and government institutions to have a broad debate in society about this; in this digital age we are in need of a concrete alternative for the organization of a democratic society in order to stop the explosive growth of government terror that targets innocent and defenceless citizens. In this way Western democracies rapidly become totalitarian dictatorships while our society turns into an "electronic concentration camp".
→ What difference is there still between a dictatorship or a single-party state like China and the big leader of the free Western world, the US? That they are capitalistic societies?
→ What meaning does the message of progress, faith and love still have on a model of society that offers a hopeful future to the fully participating citizen?
At the end of the day scaling up, distancing of citizens, negative messages on the basis of fear, suspicion and black and white thinking will not lead to a more pleasant society. Nevertheless these are everyday occurrences since 9/11. A few years ago Privacy First already decided to choose for a free and inspiring society that had been fought for for 2000 years and to draw a line in the sand for citizens. We pay tribute to the whistleblowers! Who’s next?
Chairman of the Privacy First Foundation