Report from Holland: A heated debate over a new intelligence and security act

Wet op de Inlichtingen- en VeiligheidsdienstenOn March 21, the Dutch public cast their vote about the new Intelligence and Security Services Act, in Dutch Wet op de Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdiensten (or WIV). In this two-part post, we report about the debate currently taking place. In our first contribution, the discussion itself will be analyzed. In our second post, we will focus on the new special powers that the Act grants the Dutch intelligence community, more specifically the practice of cable-bound interception, which is central here.

First the discussion. Public unrest about the new intelligence act came rather late. In August, a group of concerned students from Amsterdam was able to collect more than ten thousand signatures for a consultative referendum on the Intelligence and Security Services Act, to which the House of Representatives agreed on 14 February, and the Senate on 11 July 2017. The students were supported by a variety of digital civil liberties organizations, including Amnesty International and Bits of Freedom, and successfully petitioned 300,000 signatures. By law (which has been abolished in the meantime) the Dutch government was required to hold a consultative referendum about the new Act.

What conclusions they will draw from a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ majority, based on whatever turn-out percentage, is unclear. Some leaders of the coalition parties, such as the Christian-Democratic parliamentary leader Sybrand Buma, have stated that they will ignore the referendum altogether. A bit late to the party (parliament has discussed and accepted the new Act throughout 2017), the concerned students and digital civil rights groups claim their goal is to start a discussion about the ‘tapping law’ or ‘vacuum cleaner capability’, most often referred to as the ‘dragnet law’ in popular metaphors. Although this complex and comprehensive law settles a variety of intelligence matters, the discussion has focused almost exclusively on the ‘dragnet’: the interception of communication traffic that runs through fiber optic cables, and the consequences of the application of this special power for the privacy of Dutch citizens.

The fact that the activists choose a metaphor to specify their objections to this abstractly formulated intelligence method is understandable: in Article 48 of the Act, this authority is described as “the tapping, receiving, recording and listening of any form of telecommunication or data transfer by means of an automated work, irrespective of where this takes place”. Ever since 1913, when the first intelligence services in the Netherlands were institutionalized, supporters and opponents have discussed their secret and invisible work by making use of catchy metaphors, in order toQ Quote make it more tangible, visible, and thus comprehensible. The Domestic Security Service (BVD), established in 1949, has been characterized by some as an irrelevant ‘gossip club’, and by others as a powerful ‘Fouché instrument’, a ‘Giant in the shadow’, or as ‘a secret barbed wire barrage’ within which Dutch democracy would be locked.

The actors involved have chosen these metaphors for a particular reason. Members of parliament who felt that too much money was being spent on the security service, said that they feared that the intelligence community would grow like a ‘mushroom’. The social democrat Jaap Burger spoke of ‘a net of control over the entire Dutch population’. Activists and students who argued in the 1960s that the security service should be abolished, described it as an ‘anachronism’ —an obsolete remnant of the past— and as a perpetual running engine.

Like most metaphors, the dragnet metaphor that is dominating the discussion (echoing Burger’s ‘net of control’) aims to simplify a complex issue by turning it into a powerful image. Everyone will imagine how the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (GISS, in Dutch Algemene Inlichtingenen Veiligheidsdienst or AIVD) and the Military Intelligence and Security Service (in Dutch Militaire Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst or MIVD) will covertly throw out enormous dragnets in order to catch a few terrorists and spies —evidently a disproportionate and too far-reaching means, people will feel. Whether this will lead to a clear ‘no’ in the referendum, remains to be seen. At this moment, polling agencies expect a slight majority voting for the Act. This coming Wednesday, the results will be in. We will keep you posted.

This is the first of a two-part report from Holland, by Dr. Constant Hijzen and Peter Koop. Part two is available here.

Dr. Constant (C.W.) Hijzen is an Assistant Professor in Intelligence Studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs and the Institute for History at Leiden University in the Netherlands. His research focuses on the formative years of intelligence and security services, analyzing their early institutionalization years from a comparative and intelligence culture perspective.

Peter (P.J.F.) Koop writes about signals intelligence, communications security and top level telecommunications on his weblog and is associated with the Institute of Security and Global Affairs of Leiden University.

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