Constitutions were initially instated to keep the State at an appropriate distance. To never give the government more power or limit citizens’ fundamental rights more than strictly necessary, and only when it’s effective. Today, in the shadow of worldwide dangers and fears, the constitution of more and more western countries has degenerated into a soothing diversion from an unquenchable hunger for a digital surveillance state.
The image of the ‘constitutional democracy’ that resulted from the revelations by American refugee Edward Snowden shows many extremes: totalitarian, fearful and insatiable. It’s exactly the constitutional democracies who, under a veil of secrecy on the pretence of ‘national security’, have ended up in an arms race with many billions of victims as a result: who can gather the largest amount of private information about the largest number of innocent citizens?
Last Thursday, an incident came to light thanks to new revelations by Edward Snowden, the 30 year old American who has brought many human rights violations to light but is still on the run from his vengeful home country. Documents he leaked show that the American secret service NSA and their British GCHQ have hacked the Amsterdam-based company Gemalto. During this intrusion, they’re said to have stolen millions of secret codes that can undo the security measures on the SIM cards produced by the worldwide market leader (roughly 2 billion a year). There is no reason not to believe Edward Snowden: the security of your mobile phone’s network and internet connections was and is probably in danger.
It was revealed earlier that aside from large scale eavesdropping on international internet traffic, the United States and Britain have probably also cracked the Belgian company Belgacom, giving them access to the communications of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. The telephone lines of Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, at least 33 other world leaders and dozens of embassies and consulates have also been (or are still) targeted. Without any consequences.
Even though with their burglary in the Netherlands, the American and the British government have hit a new low in their shamelessness, that doesn’t mean they have to worry about the Netherlands or the European Union giving them the tiniest bit of resistance. On the contrary. While Russian hacker Vladimir Drinkman was extradited by the Netherlands to the United States last week, where he can expect 20 years in prison for stealing credit card information, the secret services in Europe still merrily hack away and our heads of government shield each other from accountability: at worst there might be some carefully picked ‘forceful words’, but after that, like we saw with the earlier revelations, the issue will soon be shelved again.
The Dutch government takes it a step further still than its allies. Our government doesn’t even bother keeping up appearances any more, and openly upholds its telephone and internet traffic data retention requirements, even though the European Court of Justice was very clear on this last year: the Directive on which those requirements are founded needlessly violates citizens’ privacy and has been ruled invalid. The national regulatory agency for the protection of personal data (the CBP), the Senate and the Council of State all agree that this law, which dictates that data about our telephone and internet usage as well as our physical location must be kept on record for 6 to 12 months, is actually invalid. To Minister of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten, this is not a reason to abolish it.
Another case that goes to show this government’s digital apathy is the new powers it intends to grant to our General and Military Intelligence and Security Services. If it’s up to our Prime Minister and his associates, what the British and the American intelligence agencies do in secrecy can soon be done openly and legally here: the secret services would get to indiscriminately – i.e. without having to target one or more individuals under concrete suspicions – wiretap and search all Dutch internet traffic, (including the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, worldwide one of the biggest backbones of the internet) without an independent judge being involved at any point. In spite of the fact that, as we learned in recent months, the supervision of such things is inadequate due to understaffing and insufficient authorisations on the supervisors’ part, and we barely know anything about the effectiveness of the existing authorisations, let alone the necessity of these drastic new measures.
Unhindered by the Constitution, the transformation of the constitutional democracy into a digital surveillance state is racing on. In earlier times, if the state wanted to know something about you, they’d send their most attractive spy to seduce you to a one night stand, or set up an undercover operation to have a microphone hidden in your bedroom. Back then, there was hardly anybody in the files of the secret services. Nowadays, spies don’t even have to get out of bed. We’re getting very close to a state where everyone who’s born will automatically get a lifelong record in the international secret services’ files. Not because we’re suspected of anything, but just because they can. And because the rest of the world is doing it too. What would happen if those files would end up in the wrong hands?
Danny wrote this editorial for the Dutch NRC Handelsblad and nrc.next