‘Government violates privacy too easily’

DUO was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, says Jonida Milaj-Weishaar of the RUG, when it used travel data from students to catch them committing fraud. Furthermore, she highly doubts it is legal.
By Christien Boomsma

This Tuesday national newspaper de Volkskrant reported that travel data from hundreds of students have been given to the Department of Education. DUO, the department responsible for the education grants given to students, asked for the data to check whether students were committing fraud by giving falsified information about their addresses.

Several students were found out and fined. One of them went to court. The judge ruled in May that the privacy of the student was violated. He did not have to pay the money back, nor was he fined.

DUO has been issuing five to ten requests for travel data per week, which have been granted. It says that fraud is an issue of national importance, because public money is involved and surveys show that fraud is committed often.

Continuous surveillance

Milaj-Weishaar, who has been researching the relationship between privacy and technology, focuses on how data collected by technology like smart meters or smartphones are used for surveillance.

‘Technology advances very quickly’, she says. ‘Faster than we imagine. And the laws cannot keep up. We have no proper understanding of how our privacy is affected or what that means. Not even at the level of governments.’

The continuous surveillance changes the way we feel, the way we behave, she says. ‘We are constantly watched and monitored.’

Poorly informed

A smart meter can tell a company at what time you have a shower or when you have friends over or what TV programs you are watching. Everything. Travel data can tell the government where you go, if you visit a hospital or a church. The problem is that these technologies are not built for the purpose of collecting information but do this admirably well. Users are poorly informed and there are too few warnings. ‘Combining different data sets can reveal an amazing amount of information about an individual.’

And even though governments and companies promise to take proper care of privacy, in reality, they don’t.

‘After the big terrorist attacks in 2006 in London and Madrid laws that reduce the right to privacy were issued. Citizens were willing to accept this, because the data were supposed to be used to prevent terrorism,’ says Milaj-Weishaar.

The new oil

However, terrorists are smart and the data collecting doesn’t really help to catch terrorists. ‘But governments became aware that it is cool to have these data. Data is the new oil. It gives you power.’

People are trapped, she says. You don’t have the choice not to use a chipcard, or even not to use a smart phone. ‘The only way out is when governments, companies, courts will follow a number of general principles of law that will help to bridge the gap between the quickly advancing technology and the laws.’

In the case of travel data, neither the government nor the company followed any principle. Translink that issues the chipcard promised to take the privacy issue very seriously when the card was introduced, but handed the data over. ‘The government should know that a specific mandate is required to ask for information like this.’




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