Intercept What You Can…..


By Constant Hijzen (translated from the article ‘Tappen wat tappen kan’, Groene Amsterdammer, 30 October 2013, by Matthijs Koot:

Part I

Dutch MPs are criticising the eavesdropping powers of the Dutch intelligence services. But they are asking the wrong questions. What do these surveillance programmes specifically provide? Do they still serve the interests of society?

In the Batman movie The Dark Knight (2008), Batman (Christian Bale) succeededs in using sonar technology to intercept the signals of the mobile phones of all citizens of Gotham City, and combine them into a powerful surveillance device. He can listen in on and watch whatever he wants, wherever he wants, and that is needed to track the Joker and thereby keep Gotham City safe. Batman asks his confidant Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to operate the computer, and Fox decides to help Batman, although he finds it ‘too much power for one person’ and that ‘spying on thirty million people’ is not part of his task. Once the villain is defeated, Fox destroys the machine.

It is becoming apparent that the U.S. government is developing a similar machine. At least, that’s the picture that emerges from the documents Edward Snowden stole from the National Security Agency (NSA) last spring. The largest U.S. intelligence organisation, with an estimated number of employees between thirty and forty thousand, is responsible for intercepting and deciphering communications relating to U.S. economic, political and security interests. The classified documents Snowden brought into circulation via some journalists show that the NSA is now able to store and search the telephone and Internet data of more than one billion people worldwide. It also shows the NSA – as has always been suggested – is breaking into allied nations to tap them, both digitally and physically, to eavesdrop on them and steal their keys, codes and secrets.

The size of the undertaking may be shocking, but in itself the NSA is not doing anything new. Intelligence and security services are simply specialised in gathering information on opponents. And the NSA has become very good at it. Yet the Dutch MPs are surprised when the first documents end up in publicity last June. They share the indignation of Lucius Fox and use the media to show their ‘surprise’ and ‘anger’ and emphasise the impermissibility of it all. They demand ‘full disclosure’ of ‘the scale of political espionage’ and the extent to which the Dutch secret services rely on such methods.

MPs such as Van Raak (SP), Van Miltenburg (CDA), Schouw (D66) and Dijkhoff (VVD) ask questions, demand investigations, call ministers to account. They express criticism, and find the answers of the ministers ‘evasive’ and ‘too easy’. On June 21st, Minister Plasterk, who is responsible for the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), at request sends a letter to the Parliament to clarify the legal powers of the AIVD and its military counterpart, the Defense Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD). On July 16th, parliament asked the Review Committee on the Intelligence and Security Services (the CTIVD), the independent expert committee that looks at whether the Dutch secret services are complying with the law, to start an inquiry into ‘data collection by the AIVD and MIVD’.

This parliamentary vigour is just appearances. The MPs primarily ask questions that we already know the answers to. What they now asked the CTIVD to figure out – what is the scope of the data collection in the field of telecommunications, is this practice legal, do we exchange data with the Americans and is this allowed by the European Convention on Human Rights? – is already more or less known from media reports and the (public!) annual reports of the CTIVD.

The ‘data processing’ is a major undertaking at the Dutch intelligence and security services as well. Acquisition of data is done in many ways (using human sources, wiretaps and satellite dishes, for example), but   as a result of the trend of increasing digitisation of the Dutch society, ‘large data streams’ are quickly becoming more important.

‘Big data’ is key to the Dutch intelligence community too. According to its own annual report, the AIVD in recent years has invested heavily in ‘intercepting, managing, processing and editing large information flows’, which is roughly what the NSA does.

For the undirected interception of cablebound phone and internet communications, the Dutch law will need to be changed, but otherwise this practice fits within the Dutch Intelligence and Security Act of 2002. And as long as it fits within this law, it is in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. This law was in fact established to explicitly articulate the conditions under which intelligence and security may make that infringement on universal rights. After all, the personal information can end up in the hands of the Americans (and British), although the Dutch intelligence and security may only share personal data with foreign powers if ministerial permission has been granted.

In short: of course the U.S. capacity is significantly larger, and the legal powers are different, but the trend will not be much different in the Netherlands. As a result of the digitisation of communications, intelligence and security services shift their focus to the digital domain and invest in their technical ability to cope with the growing amount of data. That also increasingly involves telephone and internet data of Dutch citizens.

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