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01 augustus 2012

Police breaches privacy laws

When somebody breaks the law, he will be arrested by the police and put to trial. But what happens if the police does not adhere to the law? No, not the individual cops, but the entire police as an organisation. Exactly; absolutely nothing. For years, all 25 districts of the national police have continuously and consistently ignored the Law for the Police data (wet Politiegegevens). After several warnings, the organisation was given a few years to better itself, but to no avail. The privacy watchdog Bits of Freedom has found out that the police does not conform to the law to protect people’s privacy.

In 1996 the committee Van Traa investigated the balance between privacy and crime fighting methods. The conclusion was that these two were off balance a lot of times. ‘The equilibrium needs to be found over and over again’, said Ulco van de Pol, who was vice chairman of the Registratiekamer (Chamber for registration) in the 1990s. ‘The surveillance techniques continue to develop and legal authorities are lagging behind.’ 

Criminal Investigation Departments store all data they collect; not only from suspects, but also from innocent civilians. Name, address, details on the private life, psychological and physical characteristics and even the social security numbers, fingerprints and DNA. A large number of institutions wants to have access to this information. Not only policy and the public prosecution, but also organisations such as insurers, bailiffs, housing organisations and social security organisations. Thirteen years ago, Van de Pol informed that the police is providing personal details ‘through unofficial channels’.

And it appears that the situation has not improved considerably. According to Tim Toornvliet, communication advisor for the digital civilian rights movement Bits Of Freedom (BOF), the police ignores the law on the protection of personal data in a large scale. Based on the Wet Politiegegevens (Wpg), the police has extended competences for storing personal data, also from people who are not a suspect.

By checking police reports, BOF found out that the police ignores the privacy laws on the Wpg on a large scale. The Koninklijke Marechaussee, for instance, violates not less than 80% of the privacy norms. Astoundingly, twelve police departments ‘score’ more than 50% and only three departments live up to the standards. Two out of these three are the largest police departments of the country; they don’t abide by the rules in ‘only’ 20% of the times.

Toornvliet: ‘The police brakes the law. The protection of personal data is often way below standards and also the police does not check whether persons are still authorised to have access to data. In addition, information which is no longer allowed to be kept is often not removed.’ If the police does brake the law, what are the consequences? Does the BOF plead for sanctions against the police? ‘In six months, a new evaluation will take place to see whether the police has improved itself on the protection of privacy. If it turns out that the police is consistently breaking the law, consequences must follow. However, the BOF will not hand in an official report with the police.’

Toornvliet continues: ‘On the other hand, it is also not the case that police officers write out fines for their colleagues. That is why we think that the Ministry should thoroughly check on the police. If police departments do not uphold the law imposed on them, the principal persons must be held accountable. Or financial sanctions must follow.’ Is the protection of privacy by the police now better than ten years ago? ‘I would say no. Information is much easier to collect. We have to watch out on several fronts. The rise of the social media, for instance, has made it a lot easier for C.I.D.'s to gather information from people.’

Researcher dr. Robert van Kralingen at the Centre for Justice, Governance and Information from the Katholieke Universiteit Brabant, informs: ‘It is the complexity of the rule of law that causes the breach of privacy. At the department of Justice for instance, they have to consider several different laws, but also eighteen memos regarding the providing of information.’ Yet, he pleads for transparency: ‘It is of the utmost importance for the well functioning of the society that criminal elements are neutralised at an early stage. Not everybody should be able to look into police and justice records. But private information must be shared between the responsible organisations to protect the society. Though privacy is very important, transparency sometimes is even more important.’

And how does the police feel about this situation? It was drs Bernard Welten, korpschef politie Amsterdam-Amstelland, who gave his personal opinion on this matter in a speech on 9 May 2008. ‘For the government it is completely clear, that safety can not exist without the protection of privacy. It is the essence of a constitutional state that there is a balance between the protection by the government and the protection against the government. Without the protection of privacy, the government is a potential threat for the rights of each and everyone of the civilians.’

Gepubliceerd in The Holland Times, August edition.