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Protect yourself (the government isn't)

Tuesday 29 October 2013

photo Dutch newspapers

The Netherlands is far too cavalier about invasions of privacy. Say no to Albert Heijn’s new bonus card, writes Edwin Göbbels.   

In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, surgeon Lemual Gulliver washes up on the shores of the island of Lilliput. Its inhabitants rob him of his freedom, imprisoning him in a spider’s web of tiny threads. On a later journey he also meets the rude and yobbish Yahoos.

Like 21st century Gullivers, we are trapped in an ever more efficient web of control spun by modern day Lilliputians and Yahoos.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a random choice of newspaper items: drones will be used to spy on citizens, policemen will be equipped with handheld cameras. This in a country which already has one public cctv camera per 82 people.

The American government is working on a system which will pick out faces in a crowd. It’s called a Biometric Surveillance System, or BOSS. It prompted Google CEO Eric Schmidt to say that the software constitutes a danger to privacy. This from a man whose company monitors the emails of its gmail users and whose Google glass invades privacy wherever its wearer goes.


More and more companies would like nothing better than to know everything there is to know about consumers. Information equals knowledge, power and revenue. Data is usually gathered on a voluntary basis. Consumers are lured by words like ‘ease of use’ or ‘free’ service. But ‘free’ and 'voluntary' are increasingly making way for ‘mandatory' information and it comes at a price. The highest price we’ll be paying is the loss of our freedom.

According to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who was prosecuted for his revelations about the Vietnam war, the American National Security Agency’s use of the digital spy programme Prism and the prosecution of other whistleblowers are turning the United States into a police state.


In the Netherlands we tend to think things won’t come to such a pass. After all, there is no serious threat, no need to compromise our freedom. If this is true, why all the cameras? Why allow so many phone and internet taps? Why allow tracking of people using stealth SMSes? Why allow police to scan the registration numbers of all cars entering the capital? Why allow the tax office to request the registration numbers of all cars using paid parking? Why allow the identification of mobile phone owners through the use of their unique numbers? Why have ‘anonymous’ public transport chip cards that can only be topped up by using your debit or credit card? 

Once upon a time, only crime suspects had their thumb print taken in the Netherlands. Now it’s common practice for all proofs of identity. ‘Brussels’ is usually blamed for this but all the European Union requires is a fraud-proof passport. The government is gradually retreating from its duty of care for the individual freedom of citizens. Its track-and-trace behaviour is setting a bad example. Why does it take a European court of justice ruling to tell us the storage of fingerprints in databases is illegal?

Smart bin

A little while ago in London smart phone monitoring bins began popping up. These smart bins collect data from passers-by, such as the kind of phone they use and the unique identification code that connects it to a network. Now the local council wants to get rid of the bins.

In our country lots of local councils are trying to tempt people to use their free WiFi. It is unclear what sort of data is being collected here. One local council writes on its website: ‘For shops, bars and restaurants the WiFi network opens the door to lots of different ways of making contact with (potential) customers. It also contributes to (get ready for the magic word) safety.'

Employers often use the protection of company secrets as an excuse to monitor the mailing and surfing behaviour of their staff, business magazine Intermediair found. Almost half of the employers who agreed to participate in a poll said staff had no idea they were being monitored.

One Dutch telecom company inadvertently let the cat out of the bag when it told Intermediair about a controversial tapping method called ‘deep packet inspection’ which charts client mobile data. ‘We are the first company in the world to use this’, was its proud boast.


Being first in the world. The rat race is alive and well, as is demonstrated by a recent successful trial where brain waves were transferred from one rat to another with the result that one rat copied the other. Brain waves are already being used to do simple things like choosing a piece of music or opening an app. The organic computer is on its way.

Pills for identification purposes are still in the design phase but there are pills with minuscule PCs and sensors providing an ‘insight’ into people’s innards which have already been tested on firemen, astronauts, soldiers and football players. One such pill was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year. If used on a voluntary basis it may be a useful way of providing information to your doctor. But what if, gradually of course, employers and health insurers make their use mandatory?


Now, more than ever, it is important that politicians, employers, employees and citizens in general develop a much more courageous attitude in the face of these threats to personal freedom. We need to look at the technical developments and their impact on privacy with a critical eye. We have to find a balance between the pros and cons of what is technically possible.

We Gullivers need to stop technique from invading the private domain. What begins as an advantage may very well end up impinging on your personal freedom. Protect your privacy, say no to the new Albert Heijn bonus card.

Sometimes governments get stuck in the web themselves. Russian newspaper Isvestia recently reported that the Russian secret service has ordered typewriters: the service wants to go back to paper so information can’t be accessed or leaked so easily. And in the USA, protesters have taken to high-tech camouflage clothing and accessories to make their point about individual identification. It’s made of reflecting material and neutralises body heat. You can even choose a hairstyle or make-up to go with it.

Edwin Göbbels is an ICT consultant.

This column was published earlier in the Volkskrant.




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