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Typical NL: Careless about privacy

A friend told me a story that many years ago he fell victim to a pickpocket in an Amsterdam café. The owner had a surveillance camera, so they were able to identify the thief. But when they turned to the police, the officer got angry: the recording was seen as an infringement of the thief's personal rights. Oh, how times have changed! It's hard to imagine something like that still happening today. Surveillance cameras are omnipresent in the Netherlands and the Groningen police even put surveillance videos on YouTube to ask the public for help.

Discussing the pros and cons of surveillance cameras would exceed the scope of this column, but my general impression is that the Dutch no longer care much about protecting personal data. This is not only about the cameras but other things too, for example the non-anonymous publication of exam results at Maastricht University. Then there are the databases – the Dutch love databases, and wherever you go you have to register, sign up, get tagged and increasingly use a chipkaart (a smart card) just to get in, be it at the library, a coffee shop, and now even on trains and busses. I do believe that it's usually with only the best intentions in mind, but as a person who cares about his digital footprint, I find it annoying if I don't know where my data ends up being stored and where it might resurface. The story by my colleague Alison on her involuntary de-registration last week is a prime example of this. All that trouble was probably caused by a single checkbox in some database.

The OV-chipkaart that I mention above, which is already mandatory in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and will soon be introduced in the rest of the Netherlands, is another example. It's handy, but if you want to save money and get a monthly pass, you have to give away your personal data into yet another database. So I couldn't help feeling a bit of Schadenfreude when Dutch computer magazine PC-Active last week published instructions on how to crack the OV-chipkaart. Several shops reported that the required tools were sold out within days.

I don't support fraud, but I do see this incident as a helpful reminder that technology is not perfect. By now, some provinces are considering sticking to the old system. By the way, if you’re at Maastricht University to study IT, this might be a wonderful opportunity for you. Trans Link Systems, the company which developed the OV-chipkaart, has just published an urgent job offer for a security officer and fraud manager.


Tim Aretz



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