Marlies van Eck
Marlies van Eck

Who do you trust with your personal data?

Don't be alarmed, but the Dutch government knows almost everything there is to know about you. From who you are, to where you live (and with whom), where you work, what kind of car you have, how long it took you to finish your degree programme, and what you earn, for a start. Oh, and based on this data, ‘they’ sometimes also make certain assumptions about you to determine whether you are likely to commit fraud. Part of a conspiracy theory? No, simply the result of the Dutch predilection for digital convenience.

Indeed, few countries are as far along in the digitisation of government services as the Netherlands, explains Marlies van Eck, a lawyer who conducts research at Radboud University on automated decisions by government computer systems. “In the Netherlands, the government actually already started processing and storing data digitally back in the 1970s. But the systems we used then still often determine how we do things now. And new systems are also constantly being added, all linked together. This is something we have little say in: when you share information with one authority, it soon becomes available to everyone.”

The government or Google?

So sharing your data is a bit scary. Is there anyone you can actually trust with your data? “Intuitively, it may feel less scary to have companies like Google or Facebook have access to your data. The government can detain you or demand money from you. Big tech companies can't do that,” says Van Eck. But with those companies growing bigger and bigger, it remains to be seen whether this is something we can ignore. “The government is very closely monitored, with supervision and control from lots of places, and strict rules. Google and Facebook also have to comply with rules, but there is definitely less control.”

Still, there is also room for improvement within government. Do you trust every single layer of government with all this personal data? “Each municipality and authority has their own systems and linked databases, but for a long time no one was responsible for the sum of the parts. Systems are often not properly linked together, and not every system is equally reliable or up-to-date,” van Eck warns. “Indeed, as an ordinary citizen, you don't know where and by whom your data is used.”

That this can lead to serious problems has become abundantly clear in recent years. “Think for example of employees who have access to lots of data as part of their work. That data is worth a lot of money. We saw this, for example, at the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration, and with the theft of Municipal Health Centre (GGD) data containing citizen service numbers and address details of thousands of people. Something like that can happen to anyone. I personally also found it very upsetting to hear that information about vulnerable children was just openly available.

Algorithms are made by humans

Problems arise not only from a deluge of data, but also from how your data is used. The fact is that government agencies and companies are increasingly relying on algorithms. These are basically computer programmes that study very large amounts of data, try to find connections in it, and make decisions based on this. But according to Van Eck, it’s too easy to point to the algorithms as the bogeyman.

“Algorithms are built by humans, and therein lies the danger. We saw this, for example, in the Childcare Benefits Scandal. News came out that fraud was being committed, the House of Representatives demanded that fraudsters be detected and dealt with, and then it was up to policymakers and programmers to do something about it. They developed an algorithm to help with this process. But after that, everyone took the outcome of the algorithm to be the truth. The result was massive public outcry when it turned out that the choices of a handful of people resulted in thousands being unfairly labelled as fraudsters.”

But then, can we still trust the government with our data? Van Eck explains that at least steps are being taken to prevent problems in the future. “A government information management commissioner has now been appointed to look into what can be improved. Above all, I think we need to stop being hip for a while. Everyone keeps talking about AI, but I would already be happy if the government and citizens understood what data is actually needed and where it is stored. “In the end, though, there isn't really an easy way back either: In the United States, for example, people are left much more to their own devices; in the Netherlands, convenience is paramount. We want to be able to apply for everything digitally, we want lots of easily accessible facilities, and it all has to happen fast too. The government collects a lot of data on us because we happen to expect a lot from the government.”

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