Profiling the biggest threat to privacy

© iStock.com/edge69 © iStock.com/edge69
These days, of all human rights the right to privacy finds itself under the most pressure. Therefore, it is of great importance that the government, being the largest privacy violator, is tightly controlled by means of proper legislation. With good checks & balances, for the government itself as well as for monitoring possible privacy violators such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and large ICT companies like Cisco and Intergraph that set up entire electronic surveillance infrastructures in China.

Under the ‘principle of security’, current Western democracies are increasingly being led by suspicion, hate and control instead of the principles of trust, love and freedom. And all of this to protect those last three mentioned? In the view of Privacy First, the line in the sand has already been drawn in 2001. Under the guise of security our legislation has been heavily modified to the disadvantage of individual citizens and through function creep the boundaries of the application of this legislation are continuously being stretched. Will loitering youth and football hooligans soon be seen as criminal or terrorist organisations under our judicial system? And what about everyone who thinks or acts differently? Where can we draw the line? And who makes the decisions over this? And who will scrutinize the decision maker and the executor?

At the moment, it is under the big heading of ‘profiling’ that ever more privacy violations take place. The aim of profiling is tracking entire populations or target groups in order to identify so-called 'outliers' through criteria and norms that are to be imposed. Outliers are deviations from the norm: people who behave differently than the ‘normal group’, or a specific group the government has set its eyes upon, whoever it may concern. People who have unpaid bills, who drive too fast, who gather in groups, attorneys, journalists, activists, airplane passengers, those entitled to public aid, sect members, etc. Just identify and track them, you never know if there’s someone amongst them who hasn’t abided by the rules or who fits a certain profile you’re looking for.

Profiling is characterised by four aspects that in our perception are in conflict with the Dutch Constitution as the basis for our constitutional State:

  • The reversion of a fundamental principle of law: citizens are tracked en masse without a concrete, reasonable suspicion of a crime. Through profiling everyone becomes a potential suspect and everyone’s privacy can be violated unpunished.
  • With the current state of technology, profiling is aimed at continuous, real-time identification instead of passive registration and analysis of data of a citizen under reasonable suspicion. So we move from registration to identification, without the authorization and awareness of the trustful citizen. In this way, out of its own distrust the government abuses the good faith of citizens and in so doing imposes its own standard criteria. Without any democratic evaluation or strict legal guarantees.
  • The application of the technology used for profiling is based on the principle that ‘everything’s allowed if it’s technically possible’. For the greater part this development is invisible for citizens. Subway stations, trains, busses, trams, inner cities, police helmets and even parking machines (!) in Amsterdam are incessantly being equipped with cameras. These are linked to central control rooms and, where possible, fitted with identification and pattern recognition software in order to be able to directly perceive ‘suspicious matters’. The mantra of our government: ‘ill doers are ill deemers’.
  • Increasing restrictions to internet freedom of companies and individuals. Since 2010 all our personal telephone and email correspondence are being stored. All this is being done to prepare for profiling. At the moment the US Congress is working on a legislative proposal (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, CISPA) which grants private businesses and the US government the right to spy on citizens at any given moment and for as long as they want and to report them in case there are ‘outliers’. All of this without the need for a warrant. WikiLeaks, child porn, copying illegal content and the like are all too readily used to introduce new legislation to further restrict our internet freedom and which is to be applied in other areas the government wants to have control over. Preferably on a worldwide scale, without any democratic scrutiny. The government obliges citizens to increasingly use online services: the Citizen ‘Service’ (Control that is) Number (in Dutch: Burger Service Nummer, BSN), the Electronic Child File (Elektronisch Kind Dossier, EKD/DDJGZ), the Electronic Student File (Elektronisch Leerlingen Dossier, ELD), Diagnosis Treatment Combinations in healthcare (Diagnose Behandel Combinaties, DBC’s), etc. Of every citizen an ‘electronic life file’ comes into existence which in conjunction with electronic traces are to become able to predict suspect or deviant behaviour. Preferably in real-time and online. All of this, naturally, to protect our freedom...

In case fingerprints in passports will be replaced by new biometric features, the road will be cleared for a much worse form of profiling. Through the use of facial scans in databases, citizens will be able to be identified and tracked in public spaces in real-time and to be singled out through profiling on the basis of criteria predetermined by ‘someone’. In this process the government deliberately focuses on modifying the technology. As a result, there is 'fortunately' no need to talk about whether or not biometrics are actually desirable in our society, and if so, under which conditions and guarantees. Privacy First advocates for 'privacy by design' and privacy enhanced technologies as well as strict legislation with regard to biometrics and profiling. Because we don’t want to leave our children behind in an electronic concentration camp...

For a free, open and vivid 2012!

Bas Filippini,
Chairman of the Privacy First Foundation

Postscript: in the context of the National Privacy Debate, this column has also been published (in Dutch) as an Opinion by Dutch web-magazine Webwereld: http://webwereld.nl/opinie/110383/profiling-het-grootste-gevaar-voor-privacy--opinie-.html and http://nationaalprivacydebat.nl/article/ww/110383/profiling-het-grootste-gevaar-voor-privacy-opinie

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