Dutch intelligence-gathering reform bill sparks privacy concerns

Dutch intelligence-gathering reform bill sparks privacy concerns

© Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A draft government bill to reform intelligence-gathering will grant security agencies far-reaching surveillance powers with insufficient protection of privacy, an independent rights group said on Tuesday.

The government said the bill would bring a badly needed modernization of intelligence-gathering methods and improve internal security, without violating privacy, at a time of increasing threats posed by Islamist militants.

“We think that the balance between safety and privacy in the draft is just,” government spokesman Tijs Manten said.

The bill was drafted after several weeks of consultations with concerned parties include civic rights groups. Its text will be reviewed before it is submitted to parliament for approval late this year or early next.

The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights said the bill, as now written, raises serious privacy concerns for the Dutch, who are some of the world's most active telecommunications users.

The Institute said the most worrying element of the draft legislation is that government itself, rather than an independent oversight body, would be able to authorize tapping of private Internet and telephone data.

    "The enormous impact these new powers will have on the privacy of all Dutch citizens is unacceptable from a human rights perspective," the organization said in a statement.

Western intelligence agencies have come under increased pressure to reform in part because of indications of abuses that surfaced when Edward Snowden, a fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor, leaked details of major surveillance programs.

    Under the draft Dutch law, telecommunications providers would be obliged to hand over data to both civil and military intelligence agencies, if warrants were approved by the ministers of interior or defenses.

Currently, Dutch intelligence agencies are only permitted to tap satellite data. The government says this provision is outdated as 90 percent of telecommunications today take place through cable.

    Privacy advocates are concerned the new system will lead to excessive surveillance, an issue of rising public concern.

But Dutch authorities, like counterparts in other European Union states, want to be better equipped to detect radical Islam on its soil and prevent any attacks by militants returning home after fighting with Islamist insurgents in the Middle East.

The Snowden affair, however, has also made many in the Netherlands wary of government spying into private lives.

Last year, the interior minister came under fire after wrongfully telling parliament that 1.8 million telecommunications intercepts had been collected by the U.S. National Security Agency, Snowden's former employer, when they had actually been gathered by Dutch secret services themselves.

    In July, a Dutch court ruled that intelligence agencies must stop spying on conversations between lawyers and their clients. The government has appealed against that decision.

(Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Heinrich)