Pledge for privacy

by Joep Derksen

Is it wise to sacrifice privacy for the sake of fighting terrorism? Even if you know that out of 17 million inhabitants only 140 persons have gone to fight with ISIS? Is it not the governments themselves who are responsible for terrorist attacks? When you interfere in local fighting, it is just a matter of time before the warring parties turn on you as well. The Dutch government wants to introduce a law to intrude on peoples privacy. But this far reaching action will not help fighting terrorism. It will only give the impression of security, but may unleash a ‘Big Brother Beast’ which we cannot yet comprehend.

Terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Paris, Brussels. The violence seems to creep ever closer to our ‘peaceful’ country. Never mind, a country which is one of the leading nations in the weapons industry. Aeroplanes, bombs and military infrastructure are sent to the Middle East. Are we so peaceful? Let’s go back to high school, the prime example of life in a nutshell. When two children are fighting, they will sort it out themselves. But what if one of these two is supported by a teacher, who provides boxing gloves? Then the other child will turn on the teacher as well and seek for revenge. For instance by slashing the tires of the teachers’ bicycle. The teacher responds to this act by checking the mobile phones, emails and website visits of all pupils. How reasonable is that?

‘Je suis Paris, je suis Bruxelles, je suis Ankara.’ After the attacks on Charlie Ebdo the phrase ‘Je suis Paris’ seemed to be so powerful. But one year later it turns out to be an idle and feeble sentence. Just like the comment of Prime Minister Mark Rutte after the Brussels attack: ‘We are with more people’. Yeah right: more people who don’t do anything and live their everyday life. Who sympathise with terrorist victims by clicking a button on their laptop and then move on to the daily chores.

It is easy to be cynical to the incapability of the Dutch government to take a stand against terrorism, but that’s not the intention of this article. Because incapability is not the main problem, it is the danger that the government is taking emotional decisions regarding the preservation of privacy. Decision made because of attacks in a Brussels airfield and metro station. Executed by friends of an arrested terrorist, who had said that he would talk about his connections in return for a less severe term of imprisonment.

Since 2014 the civil servants of the Ministry of Safety and Justice have been working on an action programme against jihadism. Minister Ard van der Steur will present this report in April and expectations are that police and the AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Service) will get far reaching opportunities to check all sorts of communication devices. Until now, a court order is needed to obtain this right, but if the Tweede Kamer and Eerste Kamer approve this proposal, any police officer may be able to check on the private communications of his neighbours with their spouses. Or Tinder friends, for that matter. All in the name of national security of course.

But such far reaching breaches of privacy are not helpful at all to fight terrorism. Don’t take my word for it, but the supervisory report written by the CTIVD (Committee for Supervision on the Intelligence and Safety Services) on 11 January 2016. Based on a law from 2002, the AIVD is already licensed to eavesdrop on telecommunication; not only regarding the information of who is communicating with who, but also what is said and written between the various parties. The CTIVD states in her report: ‘These two jurisdictions form a major part of the work of the AIVD and, when used, form a far reaching breach of privacy.’ Even though, in general, the AIVD uses its authorities in a proper manner, the outcome is far from impressive. A conclusion of the TCIVD says: ‘The turnout of the use of the selection authority of Sigint (Signals Intelligence; part of the AIVD, JD) seems limited. This poses questions regarding the effectiveness and therefore the proportionality of this means. The results on the area of meta data requires further investigation.’

In other words, it is pretty useless to collect massive data from all over the place. Allowing the police and other (government) institutions to do the same, does not help at all in fighting terrorism. It only increases the chance that information is abused. Of course there are politicians who state that nobody should be an opponent to giving up one’s privacy. Because if you do, you have something to hide. And if you have something to hide, it is most likely illegal. I call on all these politicians to install cameras in their working places and houses. And let the walk around with cameras on their suits, with live internet connections, so the world will know what they are doing. Because, for sure, they don’t have anything to hide, do they?