What were you doing last Tuesday one year ago at 8 PM? Who do you fancy? And does your current partner know? How many times have you told a lie during the past year? How many times have you had sex, and do you remember where, when and with whom? Those are just a handful of questions that you probably don’t and minister Ronald Plasterk will know the answer to in the future. And in many cases he’ll also be able to find out whether you vote for him and what private secrets you’re hiding from the world. Going against the founding principles of the constitutional democracy, the Dutch government wants to place all of its citizens under constant digital surveillance. Without any meaningful constraints, and not a judge who gets a say in anything.
If you’ve been following the mass surveillance debate, odds are your jaw is already on the floor by now. You’ll also have learned to cover up your webcam with a sticker to protect yourself from being watched by Obama’s colleagues. You’re not the only one being secretly spied on for supposed anti-terrorism reasons, either; if we can take Edward Snowden’s word for it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European Commission and the Belgian state company Belgacom are also considered ‘targets’. As much as 1.6% of all worldwide internet traffic is being wiretapped by the American NSA in this way. And they’re obviously targets that haven’t got a thing to do with terrorism.
But our minister Plasterk thinks the Americans’ transgressions aren’t going far enough yet. He proposes a new Law on the Intelligence and Security Services — also referred to as the Tapsterk Law — which decrees that not just the data traffic of internet-using suspects, but all data traffic that passes through the Netherlands will be fair game for our General and Military Intelligence and Security Services to wiretap and search at the press of a button. It’s a move that criminalises all 17 million Dutch citizens as well as many tens of millions of foreigners in one go and makes the Netherlands an unattractive option for companies that want to host their data and websites on Dutch soil.
This ‘Tapsterk law’ puts our lives at risk, too. Imagine the Intelligence and Security Services being hacked, leaving our privacy up for grabs. A month ago, two men committed suicide after their membership of the adultery website Ashley Madison became public knowledge. That’s the sort of thing we need to think about. Ironically enough, it was Snowden, boarding a place with a disc full of state secrets at age 29, who demonstrated that threats from outside the system aren’t even the only threats to worry about. Nobody, not even the secret services, can be trusted with access to that much private information.
We have every reason to harbour a healthy suspicion towards the intelligence services. Even more so because Plasterk keeps the understaffed watchdog CTIVD — with just three members and six investigators — out of the game by not giving them the authorisation they need to put a stop to pernicious practices, and because he leaves no room for evaluation by an independent judge, which means his proposal goes much further still than the American practices do. Even though, thanks to the CTIVD’s reports, we know that the secret services think nothing of breaking the law left and right.
It’s absolutely unthinkable for a constitutional democracy to put all its citizens under constant surveillance, to keep the only watchdog powerless, and to completely disregard due legal process. It’s none of the government’s business where its citizens are, what they’re doing or what they’re thinking. But shouldn’t we do anything we can do to stop terrorism? No. That argument doesn’t hold any water. The major terrorist attacks of the past decade have generally been committed by people who were already known to the security services, which are already authorised to digitally and physically keep tabs on known suspects without limitations. It wasn’t a lack of information but in fact a surplus of too much (irrelevant) information that got in the way of preventing these attacks. These new authorisations that the ‘Tapsterk law’ wants to instate are unnecesary, undesirable, dangerous, unconstitutional, and liable to be counterproductive by flooding the security services with an information overload.
Dear minister, please don’t abandon the values of the constitutional democracy. Let independent judges have their place, assign more (independent) staff and investigators to the CTIVD, give them decisive authority, and assign more staff to the intelligence services too. That will benefit society more than overloading the security services with irrelevant information by eliminating the constitutional right to privacy and respect for one’s personal life.