By Roel van Rijsewijk
Inspiring conversations with Sophie in ‘t Veld
Fighting for the Power of Technology in the European Arena
This time I had a conversation with Sophie in ‘t Veld who, as a D66 member of the European Parliament, has been fighting for the freedom and rights of Europeans for years. In this struggle, she regularly appears in the spotlight as a defender of our privacy in the digital age of tech giants and nosy governments. So of course that’s what I want to talk to her about.
I have traveled to Brussels for this interview. After the necessary security checks, I meet her in a European Parliament canteen. Before I have properly installed the recording equipment and before I have even asked a question, she spontaneously starts talking about the digital developments that make her angry.
By which she means the belief that the unlimited collection of loads of data can solve all our problems. And as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) she is particularly critical of the assumption that data availability would lead to greater security.
“The Americans refer to it as ‘Total Information Awareness’”, the word comes out of her mouth with disgust. “A proposal is made, for example the fingerprint in the passport, which is supposed to lead to greater security without any explicit explanation of how exactly this will be done and, even worse, it is not checked in terms of its use and effects. In practice it turns out the member states do not use this information at all for its intended purpose. This information is available for the governments. And if you ask questions about the use and effects, they won’t answer, because ‘if we do, we’ll make the bad people smarter too’.
How frustrating!”, she adds. “Data collection is sometimes useful but mostly harmful and pointless.”
I have to adjust for a moment. Technology can also provide solutions, can’t it? “Technology itself is not the problem, it is essentially value-free,” I try, “it is what you do with that technology that makes it good or bad.”
“Value-free? Well, at least it makes an incredible amount of money,” is her response. “Take the body scanners that have been installed everywhere. They are very expensive and we know for sure that tons of money is earned with them. But has it ever caught a criminal? We have no idea. And besides this, it’s often the case that with this kind of surveillance technology, your rights are infringed. Imagine being wrongly accused of fraud or rape because ‘the data’ says so.”
“I do understand the danger,” I agree with her. “At the start of the digital revolution, I was very hopeful and perhaps a bit naive: a world where information and knowledge flows freely, anyone can connect with anyone, and no one is in charge! But in the end, because of the network effect, a few powerful companies are in
possession of all data and set the rules.”
“Then we’re talking about the tech giants and not even the secret services yet,” she throws in. “They now have powerful means at their disposal for spying. And the target is no longer the Russians or anyone else, but their own citizens; everyone is a suspect and a potential terrorist. And monitoring what these secret services are up to has become almost impossible.”
“There is no possibility for citizens to defend themselves against the surveilling state.”
She tells about a lawsuit she once started against the French State who passed a law allowing mass surveillance. “I’m in Strasbourg in France once a month anyway and I thought I had a case because this is just against the European constitution. So, I thought I’d just try it.” The Conseil d’État thought she was whining and she also got stuck at the European Court. “There is actually no possibility for citizens to defend themselves against the surveilling state,” is her frightening conclusion.
Technology makes the powerful more powerful
After these opening salvos, I try to pick up the normal approach of a conversation. I usually start with some questions about the person and why they are involved with cybersecurity.
“I’m not a technophobe, but I’m not a technophile either. I’m just a normal user of phones and tablets. I am actually the ideal test subject; if I can handle it, anyone can.”, she laughs. “What concerns me is democracy and civil rights. Technology is making the powerful more and more powerful: the corporations and the government at the expense of the citizens. Yes, sometimes it brings a little empowerment and democratization, but completely inadequate in the face of the ability of corporations to make money off you and the ability of governments to control you. That’s why I’m involved in this.”
In this, she often feels unheard; less power for agencies and more power for citizens. “It’s the politicians on the right side of the spectrum who claim they want small government,” she continues. “But by that they mainly mean the government should not interfere too much with businesses. Yet, it is the same right-wingers who want to give the government more power over citizens. A big example is the Americans who are creating a digital big brother who knows everything about you and can manipulate you.”
“So the right side wants small government when it comes to welfare of the state but big government when it comes to security?”, I ask.
“With the term ‘safety’ I have serious issues. How much ‘safer’ will it be and at what cost? A better term is ‘control’, that is what they really want. Through the blind assumption that with more control of everyone, we will be better at catching the bad people. And meanwhile, the government’s control over the citizen increases and the citizen’s control over the government decreases. You can no longer defend yourself as a citizen against this. Everyone is a potential fraudster, criminal or terrorist and the burden of proof is reversed: you have to prove your innocence when there is suspicion.”
She almost says the Dutch ‘toeslagenaffaire’ is a ‘great’ example. “That is of course a shocking example”, she quickly recovers. “The idea that anyone can be a fraudster and must be monitored became policy with the added bonus of growing technical capabilities to monitor everyone. And if the computer says you are a fraudster, you have to prove that you are not.”
Most people are decent?
“What I find particularly shocking is that people behind the computer didn’t intervene,” I try to defend the technology again. “For so long no one at the tax department had the guts to turn off that computer. Everyone just let themselves be guided by the system, that’s what I find scary.”
“Everyone is a potential fraudster, criminal or terrorist.”
“That’s the group logic. I’m sure there are honest people working at the Tax Administration who want to do things right. But they also just went along with the frame: a foreigner is a potential fraudster. And the system is going to confirm all the prejudices because they are programmed that way.”
She continues talking about her work as a euro parliamentarian and that she is now a veteran. “There is sometimes a kind of call for rejuvenation of the parliament, because that is fresh. But to control power you also need a lot of experience. Experience to get to the bottom of new bills and understand what the dangers are.”
With this we come to talk about the bill to fight child abuse.
“They want to legally oblige technology companies to proactively check for child pornography on their platform. It’s easy to imagine this with images, but they also want all messages between people to be checked for possible ‘grooming’ or other forms of child abuse. Even if this communication is encrypted”, she adds ominously.
I think that’s something to keep a very close eye on. Would this law, under the guise of fighting child abuse, be a way to build back doors into encryption?
“I’m afraid a majority in this house supports this bill.” she warns me. “And the minority who are critical will be accused of not wanting to fight child abuse. You should know what I get thrown at my head from time to time when I’m fighting the nosy government: ‘you’ve got blood on your hands!’ And for the citizen, it’s often too abstract. I mean, anyone would be angry with a bill allowing the police to walk into your house by using the back door to see what you are doing. Right? But as soon as it becomes digital then we’re all fine with it.”
“The real power lies with national governments and the Americans.”
Usually it’s not a conspiracy, it’s a cock-up
“Well that’s changing though,” I take it. “During the lockdown we had to give up quite a bit of freedom and there was a lot of scrutiny. There is quite a large group of people who have become very critical when it comes to the corona app, for example.”
This brings me to a topic that has been keeping me quite busy lately and that I would like to hear her opinion on: the proposal for a European digital passport.
“The proposal for the European digital passport, is that coming from the EU which I also know from the GDPR, which is a very good law in my opinion that is based on the principle that you are the owner of your personal data and should always have control over it? Or is this what some claim: a conspiracy to totally control the citizen?”
“Usually it’s not a conspiracy, it’s a cock-up.”
That makes me laugh, “Yeah, they’re not that smart, of course.”
“So such a European digital passport can be introduced with the best of intentions but once it’s there, the danger of ‘function creep’ is immense. In the end it will slowly but surely become a surveillance tool.”
True sovereignty is all power in the hands of the citizen
“I always had the idea that in Europe this is approached differently than in the US, with the GDPR being a great example.”
“Look, in the European Parliament there are a lot of good people and there are definitely laws passed here like GDPR that are really well put together.”, she explains. “But subsequently those laws have to be implemented by the member states and that’s when things often go wrong. The bottleneck in the implementation of GDPR lies with the member state of Ireland where all the tech giants have their data centers and therefore other interests come into play.”
I respond that in my opinion the provisions of GDPR do not have to conflict with business interests per se. “Always ask permission, make it clear what you’re using the data for, only use it for what you collected it for, and throw it away when you no longer use it. I think that’s just smart if you want to get very intimate with the customer.”
“For me, big-tech is not the devil either, and the biggest problem is not with the corporate lobby here in Brussels. The real power lies with national governments and the Americans.”
This brings us to an important theme for Sophie: the balance of power in Brussels and the lack of control of power. “The real power lies with the European Council where the heads of government unanimously make all the decisions. And what happens there in terms of decision-making is completely invisible and therefore also unverifiable by the Parliament. Whereas, it is the same political parties that are skeptical of the EU (because it is supposedly undemocratic) that want to protect this institution in order to preserve the sovereignty of the member states. What bullshit!”
She apologizes for the language. “What national sovereignty are you talking about when it comes to climate change and data flows? That’s where we really need to act together as an EU and for that we need a strong Europe with transparent decision-making and a strong controlling function of the Parliament on behalf of the citizens who elected us. But national governments have no interest in a strong Europe: with real sovereignty, the power lies with the citizen.”
The Scent of Wild Animals
Thus we end on her main theme, the distribution of power in society. Technology is a powerful tool in this regard, which unfortunately now often only makes the powerful more powerful and still too little leads to more democracy.
She handed me a book she had written last year on the subject, ‘the scent of wild animals’. The title is derived from a statement by D66 founder Hans van Mierlo, that he loved the smell of wild animals in the House of Representatives. The real political battle that takes place in that arena. In the European democracy there is no such smell of wild animals (yet), because the EU is not yet a full democracy.
She quickly says goodbye because she has an interview for the radio about Pegasus. Pegasus is the spy software that was allegedly used by European governments to eavesdrop on politicians, journalists and activists. “This just seems to pass people by but this is bigger than Watergate, believe me. And the heads of government under whose responsibility this software was used to manipulate elections are just sitting in the European Council.”
There she goes, on to the next interview. With her fire and fighting spirit she does leave me with the smell of a wild animal. And they are really needed there in Brussels!
About the author
Roel van Rijsewijk is a cyber security consultant and evangelist with over 20 years of experience helping organizations become cyber resilient. He is a key note speaker and author of ‘Cyberrisico als Kans’ (The Upside of Cyber Risk).