Column by Bas Filippini,
Privacy First chairman
The Dutch police is currently running a pilot with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-chips in license plates. According to an internal report, fraud with license plates is alleged to be a big problem. A chip which is compulsory for every motorist and which can be read from a distance through a 'read-out portal' at all times on public roads, would supposedly be THE solution. However, Privacy First perceives the setting up of a national control system to track all movements in public space of all 17 million Dutch citizens as a great danger to society. Privacy First finds a compulsory spychip disproportional and unfit for a decent democracy under the rule of law.
A comprehensive electronic control system
Enquiries by Privacy First reveal that the license plate chip is part of a much larger plan to equip all roads in the Netherlands with so-called 'portals' with measurement equipment. These portals would record all cars 24 hours a day and thus the movements of all 17 million citizens in public space. The Dutch Bicycle and Automobile Industry (RAI) Association strongly recommends the use of such a chip in a recently leaked report. Moreover, new regulations, which make chips inside cars compulsory alongside license plate chips, are being prepared by European Parliament. According to the basic concept, over 60 details would be recorded and stored in the European database EUCARIS. The chip should enable immobilizers as well as a digital license plate database, online license plate requests, a European general periodical car inspection and could eventually grow into a European system for travel and residence rights and taxes.
For the time being, the project is traded as a solution for identity fraud and license plate related crimes in order to get citizens 'aboard'. However, in Privacy First's eyes the system is yet another attempt to be able to record citizens in public space, either through the public transport chip card or chips in license plates and/or cars. A license plate chip for all citizens as if it were an ankle bracelet is a dogged principle in the current control oriented way of thinking by the Dutch government and now the European Parliament, too. Which role do Dutch lobbyists outside Dutch parliament play in order to introduce these chips from Dutch manufacturer NXP in all European license plates on the basis of a Europe measure, or, in other words, by way of a political U-turn? Privacy First thinks it's high time for some serious journalistic research into this.
Current license plate issues: facts or suggestions?
Upon enquiry into the real problem, none of the authorities have been able to provide any clarity about the presupposed 40,000 cases of fraud with license plates. Even though it's important for citizens to know if there's a problem, and how substantial this problem is, the figure cannot be confirmed. Therefore, the question is raised whether it's legally justified to introduce such a system. Even in case of an estimated 40,000 license plates (a mere 0.5 per mil of the total) it's dubious whether the privacy of the entire society should be sacrificed. It's also altogether unclear how high the costs of such a system would be, and how high the gains in respect of the current alleged costs of identity fraud and license plate related crimes.
Are there no alternative solutions to 'the problem'? From a recent letter from the Dutch minister of Security and Justice, Ard van der Steur, it emerges that fraud with license plates occurs less frequently already due to measures such as the controlled online management and issuing and returning of license plates, requirements for recognized manufacturers and laminators (laminate code) as well as the obligation to report stolen or lost blank plates or license plates that have not yet been issued. Moreover, in 2000, the system of duplicate codes on license plates was introduced. Furthermore, faulty license plates are entered in the database for Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) control.
Whether it concerns black boxes, chips for theft prevention in (as of yet only more expensive) cars, eCall for crash analyses (also manufactured by NXP), dashcams, speed checks or the network of ANPR cameras, time and again Privacy First sees a pattern whereby the Dutch government tries to turn the complete recording of travel behaviour of citizens into reality. Now we're about to witness a spychip in every license plate and in every car, through undemocratic EU law – the ICT industry lobbied a number of MEPs in order to circumvent national parliaments – and the central database EUCARIS.
Reasons to opt for free choice and very selective use of a passive chip
Privacy First sees many reasons to not give a control infrastructure the go-ahead:
• A lack of necessity due to the absence of concrete figures regarding the 'alleged problem' and the availability of alternative solution-paths and measures, some of which have already been introduced.
• A complete lack of a cost-benefit analysis of a control infrastructure. The only one benefitting from the system in the short term is the chip manufacturer: in the future, chip manufacturer NXP will spy on you alongside the NSA! Under American surveillance legislation that is.
• The alleged problem is not commensurate with the measure, which is entirely disproportional and in breach of Article 8 ECHR. In the fight against identity fraud with license plates, a passive registration chip suffices and citizens should be able to choose freely whether or not they want to have a RFID license plate.
• The system will enable real-time identification, monitoring and recording of all citizens, including lawyers, journalists, politicians, activists – a very serious privacy infringement
• A central infrastructure and central data storage are particularly susceptible to fraud. If criminals get access to databases containing all the travel and residency data of cars and people in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe, all floodgates will be opened.
• There is a risk of function creep. The tax authorities, police and other law enforcement agencies already have real-time access to systems that have been intended for entirely different purposes, think of systems related to car parks and speed checks.
• Eventually a system like that could be deployed to burden citizens even more in various ways, such as road pricing and other travel & residency taxes and sanction systems, something that is perhaps the underlying thought of this draconian measure. Meanwhile ANPR cameras are used to fine drivers of old diesel cars in inner cities. What's next?
• Permanently recording citizens in public space will lead to self-censorship and an 'apology society' in which citizens have to have an alibi all time to explain what they were doing in a given location and why they were there. Citizens are already pestered by the police and authorities as a result of their travel behaviour – complaints about this reach Privacy First ever more often.
• Finally, an infrastructure like this affects our constitutional democracy by inverting the legal principle that there should be a reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence to be tracked: every citizen would be considered a potential suspect and would be continuously spied on.
An over-zealous control oriented way of thinking by a distrustful government
The policies of the Dutch government are tenaciously moving in one direction only. New technological gadgets are mandatorily deployed to record all citizens and central systems are subsequently linked together. After that, a flawed law and its implementation are being proposed and finally there are talks with privacy organizations and guileless citizens, who are left behind in an electronic prison. Nowadays Big Data, data mining and profiling are the magic words in all government departments. It all concerns 'OPD' (other people's data) anyway, very convenient indeed. In this case we're talking about equipping each car with three chips and implementing and maintaining a comprehensive ICT network on all roads, a market potentially worth billions of euros. And in the relationship that is then being formed between the public and the government, the latter is a distrustful partner that wants to know who the former is communicating with and what its travel movements look like. It also wants to dispose of systems with which errors can be checked, but in the worst case, it deals carelessly with all the data it collects. Such a relation, based on mistrust, certainly isn't sustainable.
The Netherlands, a global pioneer in the field of privacy
Time and again people forget: it's the legitimate task of the government to protect and promote the privacy of its citizens! Privacy First wants the Netherlands to become a global pioneer in the field of privacy with advanced technologies, based on the principles of our constitutional democracy and independent of the misconceptions of the day and our incident-driven political system. After all, this is about a fundamental turnaround in the relationship with the public, something Privacy First is opposed to. We therefore challenge politics, industry and science to turn the Netherlands into THE nation that is at the vanguard of privacy matters while maintaining security, and not the other way around!