A Dutch court has today handed down a judgment in preliminary injunction proceedings brought by Privacy First concerning the UBO register. The district court of The Hague confirmed that there is every reason to doubt the legality of the European money laundering directives which are the foundation of the UBO register. On this point the judge follows the very critical opinion of the European Data Protection Supervisor. The interim proceedings court rules that it cannot be excluded that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will come to the conclusion that the public character of the UBO register is at odds with the proportionality principle. Questions over its legality were recently referred to the CJEU by a Luxembourg national court. As such, the Dutch court felt there is no need to do the same.
Privacy First had also requested a temporary deactivation of the UBO register. This, however, is a step too far for the court, which states that deactivating the register is not possible as long as the underlying EU guideline is still in force. It would put the Netherlands in a position in which it operates in violation of the European guideline. With this claim, the judge says, Privacy First is getting ahead of itself. Privacy First will examine the ruling on this point, also in view of possibly going into appeal.
‘The introduction of the UBO register would mean that privacy-sensitive data of millions of people will be up for grabs’, comments Privacy First’s attorney Otto Volgenant of Boekx Attorneys.’On all sides there are strong doubts whether this is actually an effective means in the fight against money laundering and terrorism. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Court of Justice of the European Union will eventually adjudicate the case, and I expect it will annul the UBO register.’
At the start of this year, the Privacy First Foundation initiated fundamental legal action against the Dutch government on account of the new UBO register, which is linked to the Trade Register of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. Under the law the UBO register is based on, all 1.5 million Dutch legal entities that are included in the Trade Register will have to make public all sorts of privacy-sensitive data about their Ultimate Beneficial Owners. This concerns personal data of millions of directors, shareholders and high executives of companies (including family businesses), foundations, associations, churches, social organizations, charities, etc. Privacy First deems that this is a massive privacy violation, one which also creates personal safety risks. That is why Privacy First has asked the court to immediately declare the UBO register unlawful. A lot of information in the register will be publicly available and can be requested by anyone. In Privacy First’s opinion this is completely disproportionate and an infringement of European privacy law. The CJEU will examine whether the European legislation on which the UBO register is based violates the fundamental right to privacy.
The ruling (in Dutch) by the interim proceedings court can be found here: http://deeplink.rechtspraak.nl/uitspraak?id=ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:2457.
Update 15 April 2021: yesterday Privacy First filed an urgent appeal against the entire judgment with the Court of Appeal of The Hague. The appeal subpoena can be found HERE (pdf in Dutch). Privacy First requests the Court, inter alia, to ask preliminary questions about the UBO register to the European Court of Justice and to suspend the UBO register until these questions are answered. In view of the major interests at stake, Privacy First hopes that the Court of Appeal of The Hague will hear this case as soon as possible.
Privacy First initiates legal action against the Dutch government on account of the recently-introduced UBO register. The preliminary injunction proceedings point at the invalidity of the legislation on which this register is based. The consequences of this new piece of legislation are far-reaching as the register contains very privacy-sensitive information. Data relating to the financial situation of natural persons will be up for grabs. More than 1.5 million legal entities that are registered in the Dutch Trade Register will have to make public details about their Ultimate Beneficial Owners (UBOs). The UBO register is publicly accessible: a request for information costs €2.50.
The UBO register aims to prevent money laundering but will lead to defamation.
The privacy breach that is the result of the UBO register and the public accessibility of sensitive data are disproportionate. The goal of the register is to thwart money laundering and terrorist financing. In order to achieve this goal there is no need for a UBO register, at least not one that is publicly accessible.
That is why Privacy First wants the UBO register to be rendered inoperative by a court, which, in case necessary, should submit questions of interpretation to the highest court in Europe: the European Court of Justice. In cases like these, the judiciary will have the final say. It is not uncommon for a court to overrule privacy-violating legislation and in this respect, Privacy First’s litigation has been successful in the past.
The proceedings will take place before The Hague District Court on 25 February 2021 at 12pm. The entire summons can be found HERE (pdf in Dutch). The ruling will follow two or three weeks after the hearing.
Background of the UBO register case
On 24 June 2020, the Dutch ‘Implementation Act for the Registration of Ultimate Beneficial Owners of Companies and Other Legal Entities’ came into effect in the Netherlands. On the basis of this new Act, a new UBO register which is linked to the Commercial Register of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce will contain information about all ultimate beneficial owners of companies and other legal entities founded in the Netherlands. The register should indicate how many shares are owned by the UBO: 25-50%, 50-75% or more than 75%. Furthermore, the name, month and year of birth as well as the nationality of the UBO will be made public, with all the privacy risks this entails.
Since 27 September 2020, newly founded entities have to register the ultimate beneficial owners in the UBO register. Existing legal entities will have to do so before 27 March 2022.
The Act provides very few possibilities to safeguard information. This is possible only for persons that are protected by the police, minors and those placed under guardianship. This means that the shares of practically every UBO will become a matter of public record. Anyone has access to the UBO register, with extracts coming at a price of €2.50.
European money laundering directive
The new Act stems from the fifth European money laundering directive, which obliges EU Member States to register UBOs and disclose their details to the public. According to the European legislator, this contributes to the proclaimed objective of countering money laundering and terrorist financing. The transparency is supposed to be a deterrent for persons who set out to launder money or finance terrorism.
Massive privacy violation and fundamental criticism
The question is whether this produces a windfall effect. Registering the personal data of all UBOs and making these publicly available is a generic precautionary measure. 99.99% of UBOs have nothing to do with money laundering or terrorist financing. Even if it were proportionate to collect information on all UBOs, making that information available only to government agencies engaged in combating money laundering and terrorism should suffice. It is not appropriate to disclose that information to everyone. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) deemed this privacy violation to be disproportionate. This opinion, however, did not lead to an amendment of the European Directive.
When this Act was discussed in Dutch Parliament, fundamental criticism came from various corners of society. The business community made its voice heard because it perceived privacy risks and feared − and now indeed experiences − an increase in costs. UBOs of family-owned companies that have remained out of the public eye up until now are running major privacy and security risks. There was also a great deal of attention for the position of social organizations − such as church communities and NGOs − that attach great importance to the protection of those affiliated with them. Associations and foundations that do not have owners face a different burden: they have to put the data that are already in the Trade Register in yet another register. Unfortunately these complaints have not resulted in any changes to the legislation.
Legal proceedings look promising
Privacy First has initiated legal proceedings against the UBO register for violation of the fundamental right to privacy and the protection of personal data. Privacy First asks the Dutch court to render the UBO register inoperative in the short term and, if necessary, to submit questions of interpretation on this matter to the highest court in Europe, the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The Dutch Act as well as the underlying European directive are in conflict with both the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the GDPR. It is the legislator who has created this legislation, but it will be up to the court to do a thorough review thereof. Ultimately, the court has the last word. If the (European) legislator fails to take adequate account of the protection of fundamental rights, then the (European) court can invalidate this legislation. This would not be unique. The Court of Justice of the European Union has previously declared legislation invalid due to privacy violations, for example the Data Retention Directive and, more recently, the Privacy Shield. Dutch courts too regularly annul privacy-invading regulations. Privacy First has previously successfully challenged the validity of legislation, for example in the proceedings concerning the Telecommunications Data Retention Act and the System Risk Indication (SyRI). Viewed against this background, a positive outcome in the case against the UBO register is all but unlikely.
With great concern, Privacy First has taken note of the intention of the Dutch government to employ special apps in the fight against the coronavirus. In Privacy First’s view, the use of such apps is a dangerous development because it could lead to stigmatisation and numerous unfounded suspicions, and may also cause unnecessary unrest and panic. Even when ‘anonymized’, the data from these apps can still be traced back to individuals through data fusion. In case this technology will be introduced on a large scale, it will result in a surveillance society in which everyone is being continuously monitored – something people will be acutely aware of and would lead to an imminent societal chilling effect. Furthermore, there is a substantial risk that the collected data will be used and misued for multiple (illegitimate) purposes by companies and public authorities. Moreover, if these data fall into the hands of criminal organizations, they will be a gold mine for criminal activities. For Privacy First, these risks of Corona apps do not outweigh their presumed benefits.
The right to anonymity in public space is a fundamental right, one that is crucial for the functioning of our democratic constitutional State. Any democratic decision to nullify this right is simply unacceptable. If indeed the deployment of ‘Corona apps’ will be widespread, then at least their use should be strictly anonymous and voluntary. That is to say, they should be used only for a legitimate, specific purpose, following individual, prior consent without any form of outside pressure and on the premise that all the necessary information is provided. In this respect, privacy by design (embedding privacy protection in technology) must be a guiding principle. For Privacy First, these are stringent and non-negotiable prerequisites. In case these conditions are not met, Privacy First will not hesitate to bring proceedings before a court.
Today, the district court of The Hague ruled on the use of the algorithm-based system SyRI (System Risk Indication) by the Dutch government. The judges decided that the government, in trying to detect social services fraud, has to stop profiling citizens on the basis of large scale data analysis. As a result, people in the Netherlands are no longer 'suspected from the very start’ ("bij voorbaat verdacht").
The case against the Dutch government was brought by a coalition of NGOs, consisting of the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights (Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten), the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten, NJCM), Privacy First, the KDVP Foundation (privacy in mental healthcare), Dutch trade union FNV, the National Clients Council (LCR) and authors Tommy Wieringa and Maxim Februari.
The court concludes that SyRI is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. SyRI impinges disproportionately on the private life of citizens. This concerns not only those that SyRI has flagged as an 'increased risk', but everyone whose data are analysed by the system. According to the court, SyRI is non-transparent and therefore cannot be scrutinized. Citizens can neither anticipate the intrusion into their private life, nor can they guard themselves against it.
Moreover, the court draws attention to the actual risk of discrimination and stigmatization on the grounds of socio-economic status and possibly migration background, of citizens in disadvantaged urban areas where SyRI is being deployed. There is a risk – which cannot be examined – that SyRI operates on the basis of prejudices. The attorneys of the claimant parties, Mr. Ekker and Mr. Linders, had this to say: "The court confirms that the large scale linking of personal data is in violation of EU law, Dutch law and fundamental human rights, including the protection of privacy. Therefore, this ruling is also important for other European countries and on a wider international level."
From now on, as long as there is no well-founded suspicion, personal data from different sources may no longer be combined.
Line in the sand
"This ruling is an important line in the sand against the unbridled collection of data and risk profiling. The court puts a clear stop to the massive surveillance that innocent citizens have been under. SyRI and similar systems should be abolished immediately", states Privacy First director Vincent Böhre.
"Today we have been proved right on all fundamental aspects. This is a well-timed victory for the legal protection of all citizens in the Netherlands", says Tijmen Wisman of the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights.
Another plaintiff in the case, trade union FNV, equally rejects SyRI on principal grounds. "We are delighted that the court has now definitively cancelled SyRI", comments Kitty Jong, vice chair of FNV.
The parties hope that the ruling will herald a turning point in the way in which the government deals with the data of citizens. They believe this viewpoint is endorsed by the considerations of the court: these apply not only to SyRI, but also to similar practices. Many municipalities in the Netherlands have their own data linking systems which profile citizens for all sorts of policy purposes. When it comes to combining data, a legislative proposal that would be greater in scope than SyRI and would enable lumping together the databases of private parties and those of public authorities, was all but unthinkable. The decision by the Hague district court, however, clamps down on these Big Data practices. According to the claimant parties, it is therefore of crucial importance that the SyRI ruling will affect both current as well as future political policies.
The case against SyRI serves both a legal and a social goal. With this ruling, both goals are reached. Merel Hendrickx of PILP-NJCM: "Apart from stopping SyRI, we also aimed at initiating a public debate about the way the government deals with citizens in a society undergoing digitisation. This ruling shows how important it is to have that discussion."
Although SyRI was adopted in 2014 without any fuss, the discussion about its legality intensified after the lawsuit was announced. At the start of 2019, the use of SyRI in two Rotterdam neighbourhoods led to protests among inhabitants and a discussion in the municipal council. Soon after, the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, pulled the plug on the SyRI program because of doubts over its legal basis. In June 2019, Dutch newspaper Volkskrant revealed that SyRI had not detected a single fraudster since its inception. In October 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, wrote a critical letter to the district court of The Hague expressing serious doubts over the legality of SyRI. Late November 2019, SyRI won a Big Brother Award.
The coalition of parties was represented in court by Anton Ekker (Ekker Advocatuur) and Douwe Linders (SOLV Attorneys). The proceedings were coordinated by the Public Interest Litigation Project (PILP) of the NJCM.
The full ruling of the court can be found HERE (official translation in English).
Today the district court of The Hague has rendered the Dutch Data Retention Act inoperative in a break-through verdict. The judge did so at the request of the Privacy First Foundation and six other organizations. This puts an end to a massive privacy violation that lasted for years: retaining the telecommunications data of everyone in the Netherlands for criminal investigation purposes, which made every Dutch citizen a potential suspect.
Broad coalition of civil society organizations
Under the 2009 Dutch Data Retention Act, the telecommunications data (telephony and internet traffic) of everyone in the Netherlands had to be retained, for 12 months and 6 months respectively, for criminal investigation purposes. In interim injunction proceedings against the Dutch government, a broad coalition of civil society organizations demanded the Act to be rendered inoperative as it violated the right to privacy. The claimant organizations were the Privacy First Foundation, the Dutch Association of Defence Counsel (NVSA), the Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ), the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (NJCM), Internet provider BIT and telecommunications providers VOYS and SpeakUp. The case was conducted by Boekx Attorneys (Amsterdam).
According to the claimant parties, the Dutch Data Retention Act constituted a violation of fundamental rights that protect privacy, communications and personal data. This was also the view of the European Court of Justice in April last year, followed by the Dutch Council of State (Raad van State), the Dutch Data Protection Authority (College Bescherming Persoonsgegevens) and the Dutch Senate (Eerste Kamer). However, former Dutch minister of Security and Justice, Ivo Opstelten, refused to withdraw the Act. Opstelten wanted to uphold the Act until a legislative change was implemented, which could have taken years. The district court in The Hague has now made short shrift of the Act by repealing it immediately.
Data retention is unlawful
On 8 April 2014, the European Court of Justice declared the EU Data Retention Directive entirely and retroactively unlawful. The Dutch Data Retention Act was almost identical to this invalid directive. According to the European Court, retaining the telecommunications data of everyone, without any well-founded suspicion, is in breach of the fundamental right to privacy. Randomly and unrestrictedly collecting 'metadata' in the context of mass surveillance is not permitted, according to the Court.
Privacy First is committed to maintaining and strengthening everyone's right to privacy, if necessary by filing lawsuits against the Dutch government. The Dutch Data Retention Act was an excellent cause for doing so, says Vincent Böhre of Privacy First: "This mass surveillance constituted a massive violation of the right to privacy of every Dutch citizen. It was unacceptable that minister Opstelten clinged to this practice after the highest European court had already clearly stated back in April that this privacy violation was not permitted. Privacy First works to promote a society in which innocent citizens are not burdened by the idea of constantly being watched. The judgment of the court in The Hague is an important step in that direction."
Privacy First expects Dutch telecommunications providers to comply with the judgment and stop retaining everyone's telecommunications data for criminal investigation purposes. In case the Dutch government decides to appeal the judgment, then Privacy First is confident about the outcome of proceedings before the Hague Court of Appeal.
"Recently, the Court of Appeal of The Hague held that the storage of Dutch citizens' personal data in a central register is an unjustified violation of the right to privacy.
In light of, amongst other things, the implementation of the European regulation on standards for security features and biometrics in passports and travel documents, and to comply with this regulation, the Dutch Passport Act was amended in 2009. This new Passport Act states that future passports would have to contain a chip with a digital facial image and two fingerprints of each applicant. The Dutch government therefore planned to create a central register to hold the facial image files and four fingerprints of each applicant (two of which are included in the passport for identity verification). This new register would also serve other purposes: it would help passport fraud control, and it would allow applicants to renew their passport in any municipality in the Netherlands. The national government acknowledged that the request and saving of these personal data would form a violation of the right to privacy of Dutch citizens, but the government stated that the data storage was proportionate and justified, considering the intended purposes.
The interest group Privacy First disagreed with the government. This group, which seeks to publicly promote the enhancement and preservation of the right to privacy, believed that the creation of this central register violates this fundamental right enshrined in several international laws and regulations. The group launched legal proceedings against the Dutch government. The district court of The Hague ruled that Privacy First did not have a cause of action. Privacy First then appealed against this verdict.
Remarkably, the government meanwhile reviewed their amendments to the new Passport Act. The government concluded that the storage of these personal data in a central register did not achieve its purpose, namely passport fraud control via one's identity verification. Therefore, the Act's provisions that related to the storage of personal data in a central register would be suspended. Furthermore, the number of fingerprints to be taken for the filing would be reduced from four to two in accordance with European regulation.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal ruled that since Privacy First and the government now share the same views about the central register, Privacy First would have lost its standing in their cause of actions, so it dismissed the interest group's claims. However, the Court of Appeal found that the district court had erred when it held that Privacy First did not have a cause of action at the time. Since Privacy First is an interest group advocating the protection of the general interest of Dutch nationals' right to privacy, it should have been able to bring proceedings before the civil court according to Article 3:305 of the Dutch Civil Code (Burgerlijk Wetboek). This would only have been different if the interest group had represented the combined interest of individuals. The Court of Appeal further ruled that Privacy First incurred a financial risk.
The Court of Appeal also ruled that in view of all the circumstances of the case at first instance, the district court should have ruled in favour of Privacy First concerning their arguments against the setting up of a central register. This central register's storage of Dutch citizens' personal data is an unjustified violation of one's right to privacy enshrined in Article 8 ECHR because it did not fulfill its purpose. The Court of Appeal understands that this was a violation from the start, but this had only become evident after the first ruling."
Source: http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=27bf8f03-ada9-47d4-ac7f-4e4aece29cd3, 15 July 2014.
Today the district court of The Hague ruled in the case Citizens v. [Dutch Minister of Home Affairs] Plasterk ("Burgers tegen Plasterk"). In this lawsuit a coalition of citizens and organizations (including Privacy First) demands the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) and the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) to put an end to the receipt and use (''laundering'') of illegally collected foreign intelligence on Dutch citizens, for example through the infamous PRISM program of the American NSA. Unfortunately the court has rejected all of the claims. Below are some first observations by Privacy First.
A positive aspect of the judgment is that the court deems all plaintiffs (citizens and organizations) admissible. This is a very welcome development for Privacy First with regard to our current Passport Trial before the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, wherein such admissibility will be crucial. However, this bright spot is overshadowed by the way the district court of The Hague has dealt with the merits of the case.
First of all, the court failed to carry out a fact-finding study: in fact no witnesses and experts were heard at all, even though this was offered to the court on forehand and Dutch law offers sufficient opportunity for this.
Furthermore, it is striking that the court deems less strict procedural safeguards necessary when it comes to the exchange of massive amounts of raw data in bulk. For the exchange of information on such a large scale, stricter – not less strict – procedural safeguards are necessary, as most of these data relate to innocent citizens.
In addition, the court wrongfully makes a distinction between metadata (traffic data) and the content of communications, while both types of data overlap and require the same high level of judicial protection.
The court is also wide off the mark by judging that the legal requirement of foreseeability (including privacy guarantees) of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) would be less applicable to the international exchange of data between secret services. As yet, in the Netherlands the legal basis of such exchange of data is formed by a relatively obscure legal provision: Article 59 of the Dutch Intelligence and Security Services Act (Wiv). This article is far from fulfilling the modern requirements that article 8 ECHR imposes on such provisions. Therefore, the current practice of exchange between the AIVD/MIVD and foreign secret services in essence takes place within a legal vacuum, a legal black hole.
In the view of Privacy First, the current judgment of the Hague court comes down to the ''legal laundering'' of this practice. Privacy First expects that higher courts will deem this situation to be a violation of Article 8 ECHR and is looking forward to the appeal before the Hague Court of Appeals with confidence.