Michel posted this article on facebook: w.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2014/02/nsa-and-netherlands?fsrc=scn%2Ftw_ec%2Fwhos_watching
from The Economist/blog from Charlemagne:
The NSA and the Netherlands
Feb 12th 2014, 15:12 by M.S.
DUTCH houses are famous for having large front parlour windows that look directly onto the pavement, affording passersby a clear view of everything happening inside. It is commonplace to associate these windows with the Calvinist Dutch enthusiasm for transparency, a moral imperative to display that one has nothing to hide. One might think that such a compulsively transparent nation would be less upset than others to learn that its electronic communications were being monitored, but in fact Dutch citizens reacted with fury last August to documents released by Edward Snowden, showing that America's National Security Agency had apparently collected huge amounts of information on Dutch phone calls and other communications—1.8m of them in December 2012 alone. The interior minister, Ronald Plasterk, issued a report in October denying any Dutch government complicity, and in television appearances accused the Americans of carrying out unauthorised surveillance in the Netherlands and promised to call them to account.
Last week, in a letter to the Dutch parliament, Mr Plasterk admitted he had been wrong. It was his country's own security services that had collected the information and handed it over to the Americans. Mr Plasterk said he had initially been confused by accusations of full-scale recording of Dutch phone calls; as it turned out, Mr Snowden's "1.8m" figure referred not to the content of phone calls or e-mails, but to metadata (information on who had contacted whom, when, where and how), and it concerned not Dutch citizens' own communications but those from war zones intercepted by Dutch signal intelligence. Mr Plasterk's admission triggered a second round of controversy, as angry MPs charged Mr Plasterk and the defence minister, Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert, with misinforming parliament. Both had learned the truth in late November, but said nothing about it until a lawsuit by civil-society watchdogs last month forced their hand. On Tuesday night Mr Plasterk barely escaped with his job, after a withering ten-hour parliamentary debate ended in a narrowly rejected no-confidence motion at 2am.
The affair, however, has shifted the focus of the country's debate over electronic surveillance, from resentment of America towards a questioning of how the Netherlands treats its own citizens' privacy. Besides having larger windows, the Dutch tend to share more information with the government than people in other countries. The Dutch stadsregister, or municipal registry, is a wonder of bureaucratic centralisation; citizens are required to register at the local town hall each time they move to a new location, and to sign out of the old one. Municipal health services track citizens' vaccination records and follow pregnant women to ensure they are integrated in the national prenatal care and delivery system. Police keep tabs on "problem families", and tax authorities are notoriously invasive. The entanglement is a two-way street: the Dutch provide their government with such detailed personal data in order to claim a raft of subsidies, from child stipends to health, disability, retirement and extended unemployment benefits.
But the knowledge that the government already possesses so much information about them has not led the Dutch simply to give up on the idea of privacy. In some areas, the Netherlands has strict rules on how private information can be accessed. Indeed, Mr Plasterk said that the NSA revelations had forced him to go on television in order to counter popular anger at the inaccurate impression that the Dutch security services were breaking the law by collecting bulk transmissions of citizens' conversations. In other areas, the Dutch seem resentful of how much the government knows about them, but unsure how to respond. Voters have repeatedly rejected a national electronic patient-dossier proposed by the health ministry, though it would probably make navigating the health system easier. There has been grumbling about proposals to lengthen the amount of time police can hold data on licence plates recorded by automatic cameras. Security breakdowns at the national electronic government registry, and in the new electronic-pass system of the national railways, have made citizens even leerier.
Every country engages with the new realities of ubiquitous surveillance based on its own particular totalitarian nightmare, and every country's response to that nightmare has its own kind of irrationality. America never experienced totalitarianism, and derives its vision largely from the movies, where the villain is almost always a dictator. America's irrationality takes the form of paranoid opposition to government collection of electronic data, and confused ambivalence towards the more sophisticated and invasive private-sector collection of the same information. The Netherlands did experience totalitarianism, if briefly; and deep in the background of the Dutch anxiety over electronic surveillance lies the consciousness that here, when SS officers went door to door rounding people up, it was the local governments' own excellent municipal registries and the Dutch tax service's own detailed financial records that provided the occupiers with the data they needed.
But what are the Dutch supposed to do? Stop collecting data? Give up their social benefits? Stop running their country so well? The Dutch were outraged at the idea that the Americans were collecting electronic surveillance on them, but once it turned out that their own security services were responsible, the controversy settled into an argument between the government and the opposition, leaving the deeper issues of the electronic-surveillance state behind. Ultimately, the Dutch have long had to face an uncomfortable fact: they live in a small, flat, open country of large windows, where people tend to be up in each others' business. In the Netherlands, privacy often takes the form of a tacit agreement not to mention publicly things that everyone, in fact, knows.