Blog Posts March 21, 2018 0

Big Brother is Helping You?

If you live in The Netherlands, you’ve probably been overloaded with news about data privacy recently. Newspapers around the country reported that the FIOD and the Belastingdienst (both Dutch tax agents) are now allowed to tap suspects’ phone conversations and perform undercover operations, a feat previously allowed only by the police. Perhaps you were stopped on your way to work this morning, as I was, by an older gentlemen with the word ‘TEGEN’ (or ‘against’) in capital letters on his t-shirt. He was opposing the controversial Wiv-wet, a proposed law allowing security services to tap into internet networks and private individuals, which is the subject of this Wednesday’s referendum. The logo for the movement that opposes the law? The ‘Big Brother’ eye with a red cross through the pupil (see above).

Outsiders are paying attention to Dutch news, too. Reports from The Guardian raise concern about the use of smart tech in the Dutch cities of Utrecht and Eindhoven. In busy nightlife streets, aggressive behaviour is detected by wifi trackers, cameras and microphones and used to alert police. Does this result in safer streets? Sure. At the same time, hundreds of data points are being collected, monitored and shared between authorities. In Utrecht, the city tracks movements of young people, their age groups and whether they know each other, all in order to decide which groups are susceptible to dropping out of school and their inclination towards poverty. Peter van de Crommert, project manager for the Dutch Institute for Technology, Safety and Security, says “we often get that comment- ‘Big Brother is watching you’- but i prefer to say, ‘Big Brother is helping you.’”

The complexities of collecting, storing and sharing data are by no means new, and were around even before George Orwell’s 1984. I am not making groundbreaking comments when I warn of the dangers of data. There is a preoccupation, almost an obsession, with the collection of data. The fact is that much of the data collected by government authorities or local councils is shared with private companies, sometimes without clear agreements about what they can do with the data.
There is still much to learn about what we should or can DO with this data. We need experts in data, who have the skills and capacities to visualise, analyze and collect data. We also need diplomats and social scientists and lawyers and human rights activists who work for government or thinktanks or NGOs. They can bridge the world of data with the world of people and make this data ‘liveable.’ And, because who can resist a sales pitch, that’s part of our mission at PeaceTech Lab NL. An ideal world; Big Brother is helping us, and we’re helping him. And we’re helping each other.

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