As of 2 October 2012, the new Dutch National Human Rights Institute (College voor de Rechten van de Mens, CRM) will open its doors. Recently the Institute under formation established the essential pillars of its policy for the coming years, namely 1) care for the elderly, 2) immigrants and 3) discrimination on the labor market. However, of all human rights, in recent years the right to privacy is worst off in the Netherlands. Contrary to the above mentioned pillars (that concern vulnerable groups of people), the right to privacy appertains to anyone who finds him or herself on Dutch soil. In essence this has turned the entire Dutch population into a vulnerable group, especially in comparison to the situation in other countries where the protection of privacy is much better regulated. A few years ago the right to privacy was even about to become a complete illusion in the Netherlands. In May 2009 this state of affairs led to the foundation of the Dutch Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights (Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten) in which various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have joined forces. This week the Platform sent the below appeal (co-authored and signed by Privacy First) to the chairman of the future National Human Rights Institute, Laurien Koster:
Dear Ms. Koster,
Today, of all human rights, the right to privacy finds itself under the most pressure. Therefore, it is with concern that the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights recently took note of the three essential pillars of the National Human Rights Institute for the coming years, namely 1) care for the elderly, 2) immigrants and 3) discrimination on the labor market. Not willing to take anything away from the social importance of these three pillars, in this letter we ask you to still consider adopting privacy as one of the pillars of your Institute.
In recent years, there seems to be the tendency in the Netherlands to confront every social problem with a standard formula, that is say, more digital registration, more linkage of files, opening up systems and central databases that become accessible to ever more officials and third parties, restriction of professional autonomy, preventive controls and profiling. It seems as if people, especially politicians, influenced as they are by the media and the vox populi – which in turn is affected by the media – think that these instruments exert a certain control over society that should lead to more order, tranquillity and security. In our opinion the opposite effect is increasingly the case. After all, digitalization implies that the quantity of data that is stored of every citizen becomes ever greater and less clear and less controllable. This especially applies to data that have been inserted or linked up erroneously or that are obsolete. The exponential growth of digital registrations sees a dramatic increase in risks of data leakages while new forms of identity fraud and identity theft arise. This means that the insecurity of digital systems becomes a direct threat to citizens. Furthermore, there’s a risk that citizens become their own digital ‘doubles’ through digital profiling. This implies that the autonomy of the free citizen who participates in society – a characteristic so very important in a democratic constitutional State – is seriously put at stake.
Going back to a society without the Internet or digital files is by no means what we advocate for (if it were possible anyway). However, a sensible use of technological means, among which data storage, biometrics and other such technological assets, will be necessary to retain our democratic constitutional State and affiliated fundamental rights. Particularly in these times of unforeseen technological possibilities we should once more realize how important the fundamental principles of our society are. Therefore, it should every time be assessed what is within the boundaries of acceptability and to what extent possible alternatives on a human scale, such as personal contact but also assistance and service, are desirable or necessary.
Privacy constitutes the basis of our democratic constitutional State. Without privacy many other human rights are at issue, among which are the right to confidential communication and freedom of speech, non-discrimination, freedom of movement, association and assembly, demonstration, culture and religion, press freedom as well as the right to a fair trial. Apart from that we observe that in the Netherlands the right to privacy can only rely on patchy protection by government supervision, that is to say, it only concerns the protection of personal data. As far as the protection of personal privacy in the broadest sense of the word is concerned (and this includes the inviolability of the home and the right to physical integrity) there is hardly any government supervision. Moreover, with regard to the realization and compliance to as well as the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in conjunction with other human rights, government supervision is lacking altogether. It is especially in these areas that your Institute has added value and can help overcome the ‘human rights gap’ that has come into existence in the Netherlands in recent decades.
We hope that your Institute will still make the right to privacy one of its policy pillars. If you wish, the organizations that together form the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights are happy to supply you with information and advice.
On behalf of the participants of the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights I remain respectfully yours.
chairman of the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights
On behalf of the Platform participants:
Humanistisch Verbond (Humanist Association)
Stichting KDVP (KDVP Foundation; Dome of DBC Free Practices)
Stichting Meldpunt Misbruik ID-plicht (Contact Point on Abuse of Mandatory Identification)
Ouders Online (Parents Online)
Stichting Privacy First (Privacy First Foundation)
Burgerrechtenvereniging Vrijbit (Civil rights society Vrijbit)
Jacques Barth (on behalf of Stichting Brein en Hart i.o. (Brain and Heart Foundation under formation)
Joyce Hes (advisor to the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights)
Kaspar Mengelberg (on behalf of DeVrijePsych (The Free Psychiatrist))
A pdf version of this letter can be found HERE (in Dutch)
Update: in a written reply (pdf) the Institute under formation notifies that in the Netherlands there is indeed ‘‘still a lot to be done to safeguard the right to privacy’’. The Institute also acknowledges the limited mandate of the Dutch Data Protection Authority (College Bescherming Persoonsgegevens). However, for the time being the Institute sticks to its intended strategic agenda. Nevertheless, in the future (also the coming three years) the Institute ‘‘can’t and won’t distance itself from problems when realizing the right to privacy’’. Privacy First will be eager to remind the Institute of this in urgent cases.