The biggest threat to our privacy on the internet is not the government, the secret services or the internet providers, but ourselves. We are careless with our personal data and make little effort to encode information or use other options for keeping our private information out of the hands of cybercriminals, internet providers or even our own government. In addition, everyone now has access to personal information relating to other people via social media. The Dutch government has neither the means nor the inclination to protect our privacy in this respect, so it is up to us. This is the opinion of IT lawyer Kees de Vey Mestdagh of the University of Groningen.
Nonetheless, the fact that we are personally responsible does not mean that the Dutch government is entitled to tap data on a large scale or that the foreign secret services and internet providers have carte blanche to do the same, says De Vey Mestdagh. ‘The recent recommendations made by the Dessens committee make this an urgent issue. This committee is arguing the case for legalizing random tapping of all internet and telephone communication through surveillance, including on optical fibre cables.’
‘At present, virtually no solid research has been published stating the extent of the damage prevented by all these security measures, or the risks that they have reduced. Even the estimates made by professional parties such as Symantec and McAfee differ by a factor of ten. Their assessments vary from 100 to 1,000 billion dollars per year. They simply don’t know.’
De Vey Mestdagh hopes that a better understanding of the damage and risks of cybercrime will go some way to reversing the growing mistrust between citizens and governments. ‘The world is now divided into two camps. One party, the governments and secret services, want to combat cybercrime and cyber terrorism by mass violation of our privacy. The other party, the whistle-blowers and worried citizens, are adamant that there should be no control. But neither party has public data on which to base their arguments. Our Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations are unable to answer questions about the legitimacy of tapping our private information. Ask a room full of students how many of them have been victims of cybercrime and it will probably go very quiet.’
Very few people worry about their information becoming public. But they should, says De Vey Mestdagh. ‘Leaving aside problems like phishing or identity fraud, citizens can encounter problems relating to what is known about them at the most unexpected moments. Take a law student who makes a derogatory tweet about Frisians. He can forget about applying to the famous Leeuwarden-based law firm, Anker & Anker. Another example: messages on social media about health-related behaviour will soon constitute a much greater danger.’
De Vey thinks that the public should be better informed about the risks of cybercrime, and ways of protecting themselves. ‘This is certainly a job for the government. I have no illusions that the Dutch government will protect us from the NSA breaking into our systems. The concept of territory, which forms the basis of Dutch jurisdiction, barely exists in cyberspace. But the government could be more transparent about the data it controls or stores. And education and research could be used to make the public more “media savvy”.’
‘You must not make it easier than necessary for hackers and spies, or governments and companies, to cross the boundaries. Obviously every code and cryptography can be cracked, but like putting a large padlock on your bike, security measures can considerably reduce the risk of damage. And in the case of personal details, the stakes are high.’
Kees de Vey Mestdagh teaches law and IT at the University of Groningen, lectures in legal knowledge management in Amsterdam and is founder of the Department of Law and IT in the University of Groningen. Cybercrime and internet governance are among the subjects he is researching. He regularly publishes articles on IT-related legal issues, the use of IT in legal practice and artificial intelligence and law.
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