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Appeal to the Human Rights Board

From 2 October next, the new Human Rights Board (CRM) will open its doors. Recently, the College i.o. presented its priorities for the coming years fixed, namely 1) elderly care, 2) foreigners and 3) labour market discrimination. Of all human rights, however, the right to privacy has fared worst in the Netherlands in recent years. Unlike the above focal points (which involve vulnerable groups citizens goes), this hits everyone located on Dutch territory. Essentially, this has made the entire Dutch population a vulnerable group, especially compared to other countries where privacy protection is much better regulated. A few years ago, the right to privacy in the Netherlands even threatened to become completely illusory. In May 2009, this observation led to the establishment of the Civil Rights Protection Platform which several civil society organisations have since joined. This week, the Platform sent the following appeal (co-authored and signed by Privacy First) to the chair of the future Human Rights Board, Ms Laurien Koster:

Dear Ms Koster,

Of all human rights, the right to privacy is under the most pressure these days. It is therefore with concern that the Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights recently learned of the three spearheads of the Human Rights Board for the coming years, namely 1) care for the elderly, 2) foreigners and 3) discrimination on the labour market. Without wishing to detract from the social importance of these three spearheads, we would like to use this letter to ask you to consider making privacy the spearhead of your Board after all.

In recent years, a tendency can be detected in the Netherlands where every social problem seems to be approached with a standard recipe, namely more digital registration, more linking of files and centralisation of systems and databases that become accessible to more and more officials and third parties, curtailment of professional autonomy, preventive monitoring and profiling. It seems as if people, especially in politics, fed by media and the vox populi - to the extent, again, influenced by the media - see in these instruments a control of society that should lead to more order and peace and security. In our view, the opposite is now increasingly the case. Indeed, digitisation means that the amount of data stored on each citizen is becoming increasingly large, confusing and uncontrollable. This is all the more true for data that has been entered incorrectly, mismatched or is outdated. With the exponential increase in digital records, the risks of data breaches increase correspondingly and new forms of identity fraud and theft emerge. Thereby, the insecurity of digital systems becomes an insecurity that directly threatens citizens. In addition, there is a risk that citizens become their digital 'doubles' through digital profiling. This seriously jeopardises the autonomy of free and participating citizens that is so important in a democratic constitutional state.

Returning to a society without the internet or digital files is something we by no means advocate (if at all possible). However, sensible use of technical means, including data storage and biometrics and other technical achievements, will be necessary if we want to maintain our democratic rule of law and its fundamental rights. Especially in these times of unforeseen technical possibilities, we must once again realise the importance of the fundamental principles of our society. Each time, we will have to weigh up where the limits of what is permissible lie and how possible alternatives in the human sphere, such as more personal contact but also help and services, are desirable or necessary.

Privacy is the foundation of our democratic rule of law. Without privacy, numerous other human rights become compromised, including the right to confidential communication and free speech, non-discrimination, freedom of movement, association and assembly, demonstration, culture and religion, freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial. We also note that the right to privacy in the Netherlands enjoys only piecemeal protection by government supervision, namely as far as the protection of personal data is concerned. Government supervision of the protection of privacy in the broader sense of the word (including the right to housing and the right to physical integrity) is virtually non-existent. Moreover, government supervision of compliance, protection, realisation and promotion of the right to privacy in connection with other human rights is completely absent. It is precisely in these areas that your Board has added value and can close the 'human rights gap' that has emerged in the Netherlands in recent decades.

We hope that your Board will still make the right to privacy a priority. If required, the organisations that make up the Civil Rights Protection Platform will be happy to provide you with information and advice in this regard.

On behalf of the participants in the Civil Rights Protection Platform, I stay,

Vincent Böhre
chairman Platform for the Protection of Civil Rights

On behalf of the following Platform participants:
Humanist Alliance
KDVP Foundation
Stichting Meldpunt Misbruik ID-plicht
Parents Online
Privacy First Foundation
Civil rights association Vrijbit
Jacques Barth (from Brain and Heart Foundation i.o.)
Joyce Hes (advisor Platform for Civil Rights Protection)
Kaspar Mengelberg (from DeVrijePsych)

A pdf version of this letter can be found HEREpdf online.

Update: in a written responsepdf the College i.o. informs that there is indeed "still much to do in the field of protecting the right to privacy in the Netherlands." The College also acknowledges the limited mandate of the Data Protection Board. For the time being, however, the Human Rights Board is sticking to its intended strategic agenda. Nevertheless, the Board "cannot and will not in the future (including the next three years) stay away from problems in realising the right to privacy." Privacy First will be happy to remind the College of this in urgent cases.