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.
EU Passenger Name Records: every airline passenger a potential suspect
EU Passenger Name Records: every airline passenger a potential suspect.
Today is a historic day in both a positive and a negative sense: on the one hand European Parliament has taken an important step forward in the area of privacy by adopting the General Data Protection Regulation. On the other hand, that same parliament has today concurred with large-scale storage of data of European airline passengers. As a result, every airline passenger becomes a potential suspect.
The General Data Protection Regulation will replace national privacy legislation in all EU Member States (this includes the Dutch Data Protection Act, Wet bescherming persoonsgegevens) and, in broad terms, will lead to better privacy protection throughout the European Union. Privacy Impact Assessments and Privacy by Design will become obligatory. These are two important features which Privacy First has for years been advocating for. Fundamental privacy principles such as necessity, proportionality and subsidiarity (obligatory use of privacy-friendly alternatives) will be more strongly enshrined and better elaborated.
In this light it is surprising that on the same day European Parliament has also adopted a measure that is in blatant disregard of these selfsame principles: the European Passenger Name Records (PNR) Directive. Under this PNR Directive, the data of all European airline passengers will be stored in centralized government databases for the duration of five years for the detection and prosecution of serious crimes, counter-terrorism, intelligence gathering, etc. Large amounts of travel data (names and addresses, telephone numbers, destinations, credit card data, even meals and service requests) of millions of people will therefore remain available to law enforcement and intelligence services for the purpose of datamining and profiling.
However, in 99.99% of all cases this concerns innocent citizens, most of which are people on vacation and business travellers. This constitutes a flagrant violation of their right to privacy and freedom of movement. Because of this, in recent years there had been a lot of political resistance against this plan which, since 2010, has been repealed on various occasions by both the Dutch House of Representatives as well as European Parliament. Last year, Dutch ruling parties VVD (Liberals) and PvdA (Labour) were still resolutely opposed to PNR. At the time, these parties referred to it as a ‘vacation register’ and even threatened to turn to the European Court of Justice in case the EU PNR Directive were to be approved of. But after the attacks in Paris and Brussels, many political reservations now seem to have disappeared like snow melting in the sun. Meanwhile, the necessity and proportionality of large-scale PNR storage has still not been proven. In the view of Privacy First, this PNR Directive is therefore unlawful in advance.
At the moment Privacy First is looking into legal steps to sweep this directive aside after all, either through a Dutch court or by lodging a direct appeal before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Additionally, Privacy First will continue to advocate for a privacy-friendly PNR system which records and monitors only suspected individuals and leaves the vast majority of travellers alone.
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