Some of the recent countries which have shown a willingness to snoop on their citizens in a misguided effort to enhance their security have raised eyebrows. Switzerland’s recent referendum which approved increased online surveillance powers was especially surprising.
But the latest country is perhaps the most surprising of all. Because the latest super-snooping nation looks likely to be the Netherlands.
Dutch Intelligence and Security Services Bill
In the Netherlands, the Dutch Lower House has just passed their new Intelligence and Security Services Bill in a process which mirrors so many other intrusive pieces of legislation around the world before it.
According to the Dutch website Bits of Freedom, the Bill has been rushed through Parliament in super fast time and this has resulted in almost no amendments to the original draft being made. This is despite significant opposition being raised by opposition parties, regulators, civil society, other experts and campaign groups, and of course the Dutch people themselves.
The Bill itself was first published back in July 2015, but after being savaged, the Government withdrew it and largely rewrote it. It was then submitted to the lower house in late 2016, but with an election scheduled for March 2017, the Government decided it needed to rush the Bill through Parliament.
This urgency led to the parties which make up the ruling coalition in the Netherlands uniting behind the Bill, meaning efforts by those outside the Government to amend it largely failed.
So, what new powers does this new Bill propose? One of the most controversial will allow Dutch intelligence agencies to routinely conduct mass online surveillance and collect user data in bulk. Under the present law, data collection and surveillance is only permitted in specific, targeted circumstances. But that all now looks likely to change.
Bulk data collection, of course, means that the communications data of innocent Dutch citizens will now be collected by the authorities along with that of suspected criminals. As the Bits of Freedom report notes, “this law seriously undermines a core value of our free society, namely that citizens who are not suspected of wrongdoing, ought not to be monitored.”
But it is not just the collection of this data which is worrying, but the plans to share it as well. It is a widespread practice for intelligence agencies to collaborate with overseas agencies on investigations and for data sharing to be part of that process.
But under the new proposals, Dutch intelligence agencies will be able to share data even if they themselves have not even analysed it yet. This not only risks private information potentially being handed over to foreign intelligence agencies but also sensitive and even secret data being given away as well. The risks of this proposal are potentially significant to Dutch national security as well as individual privacy.
Lack of Safeguards
Another problem which has been raised with the Bill is a lack of safeguards in the proposals This is especially true when it comes to the powers for real-time access to databases. Under the proposed new law, Dutch intelligence agencies will be permitted to have “direct and fully automated access to databases of cooperating organizations without human interference.”
There is nothing in the law to require this to be done responsibly or proportionately, which is immensely troubling when you consider that this includes data from banks, schools, civic organisations, and even tax authorities.
This is not the case throughout the Bill, and as the Bits of Freedom report acknowledges, “many of the agency’s powers now will require a sign-off from the Minister of the Interior and a review committee.”
But nonetheless there is much for Dutch privacy campaigners, and indeed Dutch citizens, to be concerned of in the new Bill. It has not become law yet. It still needs the approval of the Dutch Senate, the Upper House, before that happens.
And should it be passed without further amendment, it seems highly likely that legal challenges will follow too. The recent European Court of Justice ruling on the UK’s bulk data collection will offer encouragement there.
But for now, Dutch citizens are likely to be scrabbling to sign up for a VPN, or other similar tools, to protect their own online privacy, whilst their political parties decide to what extent they want to try and intrude on them.