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Sunday, 11 May 2014

‘People are people’. Governmental abuse of power in the ‘Age of Ubiquitous Information’

It's obvious you hate me
Though I've done nothing wrong
I never even met you
So what could I have done

It was one of those small news messages that so easily escapes the curious eye, but for me personally it is very shocking.

The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad printed that government officials had been nosing around in sensitive private information of Dutch VIP’s, the so-called ‘Bekende Nederlanders (i.e. Famous Dutch people).

Here are the pertinent snips of this article:

Civil servants drivel upon private data of Dutch VIP’s. Employees of 13 municipal welfare services have been gawking over 140 times at the alimony payments, the debts, the estates and the vehicle fleets of football players and movie stars.

What is more fun than nosing around in the personal problems of moviestars or gawking at the cars of the star football players, the alimony expenses of writers-in-dire-straits or the wages of a national ‘gig meister’?! This becomes clear from an overview of the Dutch national inspection and the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is in the possession of the AD newspaper. The mentioned breaches of privacy surfaced at the end of last year.

The inspection checked ‘at random’ the protection of private data in eighty municipalities. Besides that, the search history of civil servants has been filtered on ‘unnecessary’ nosing around in the private data of 100 randomly picked VIP’s.

The inspection overview discloses now that civil servants checked for 146 times the private data of VIP’s. They did so using Suwinet, a special database in which governmental bodies, like the Dutch Internal Revenue Service, the Information Management group (i.e. government body responsible for student allowances), the Land Registration, the National Traffic Service (i.e. Rijksdienst Wegverkeer – EL) and the Executive for social Worker’s Insurances (i.e. UWV) exchange their data with the municipalities.

Usually, only a few civil servants per municipality use Suwinet, in order to check whether somebody could receive a governmental allowance. However, with so much juicy private data of national VIP’s, abuse is lying in wait. Because, what is more fun than watching the private data of the national VIP’s.

Civil servants of 13 municipalities and regional social services took – without any reason whatsoever – a peek in the private data of the rich and famous. Especially the Bureau Drechtsteden, which handles the social services of cities like Dordrecht and Zwijndrecht, is the ‘national champion of shame’. No less than 51 times, civil servants at this bureau nosed around in the extremely private data of these VIP’s, via Suwinet.

The inspection calls the lack of security within the personal data ‘worrisome’. After all: only 4%(!) of all municipalities has all the essential regulations in order, while more than 13% does not meet any regulation.

Big Brother is watching you! And he is watching you in the form of a relatively harmless civil servant, who is seemingly totally clueless about the fact that what he does is wrong! ‘Just an innocent peek. Nobody is hurt by that?!’

One of my former principals, International Card Services (ICS) in The Netherlands (credit card issuance), maintains a very simple rule for peeking in the information of VIP’s: you are fired at the spot and you are guided outside by security people, to never get inside the building anymore.

Unfortunately, people are people and people will always remain strangely attracted by the lifestyles of the rich and famous. That has been and will always be.

The difference between the past and nowadays, however, is the ubiquitous availability of the most intimate and harmful private data ‘at one or two mouseclicks’ and the impossibility for the person concerned to do anything about that.

At ICS, you could eventually abolish your creditcard, in the imaginary case that your privacy would be compromised by the company (their internal data protection has always been top of the bill, as far as I’m concerned). However, you can’t abolish the civil services of the city where you live. And you can’t simply move to another city, because you don’t know their security policy and their history of privacy breaches.

In my opinion, there is only one remedy for these extremely harmful breaches of trust within the governmental services: firing the people at the spot and showing their names and faces in local or even national newspapers.

This way these civil servants, betraying the trust of the people who entrusted them involuntarily with their most private data, will be out of business indefinitely. And the cities in which these security breaches happen, should be fined with a penalty of at least €10,000 per occurrence. This is necessary to make these events really painful for the city and organization where they happened. 

These are harsh, but necessary moves to restore the trust of the VIP’s in question in a government, of which only the most trustworthy behaviour must be expected.

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