The relationship between privacy and transparency is complex. Privacy is often wrongly used by governments to prevent transparency. This is a problem because without access to government information we cannot influence the debate.
There is still a world to win when it comes to privacy in the Netherlands. We see CCTV in public spaces and in traffic. We know that public phones bleeds and data is being collected, but we are not supposed to know how much and how often this happens.
We depend on whistle-blowing civil servants, smart journalists with a long breath and critical citizens. But it really starts after identifying improper behavior of a government. Then you will have a long road full of obstacles ahead of you, leading often to the highest courts.
Accountability is still no common policy. The problem is bigger. How does a government feel it is being controlled if we do not even know who the government is, or what the government is exactly doing? You can only call a government to account, if you know who the government is. But to what extent do we want this responsibility to reach? And isn’t privacy being compromised?
Would you want to have the ability, as in Sweden, to request the tax bill of your neighbor? You might think this goes too far, but do you know that on any billing by a self-employed in the Netherlands, the VAT number equals the personal identification number on one’s passport?
The good news is that we as a society can influence this ourselves and come up with better solutions. We can ourselves as a society define the boundaries. For this, we would need to have access to the same knowledge and information as the government itself. However, at this time, it is precisely the privacy-argument that government authorities regularly put forward as a reason for not being transparent. If we want to closely follow and influence government decision-making, transparency is crucial.
Governments reuse data
We are still unable to see what data, which governments, when and where use. Nor do we know the governments with whom this information is shared and why. Of course, a smart government depends on knowledge and information. They will therefore want to have access to information from other authorities as well. But while governments exchange large amounts of data with various parties, governments still not actively make information available and accessible as open data. Where is the line? And do we need to adapt this line to the changing society?
Privacy and false security
So far, the legislature focused on prohibiting and restricting the sharing of information as open data. Basic rights are interpreted in such a way that information is provided as a single package or in return for a fee, but not in bulk or as open data. For instance, in the Netherlands there is the BIG-register with health professionals, registers with accountants and judges and databases of companies that receive subsidies, for instance for EU agriculture funds. You can search through these records, the information is public, but you can not reuse the data in bulk. We find this strange.
Privacy is also used as an argument to place the company register and the future UBO register behind pay walls. With this, the information is only fully accessible for large companies, such as insurance companies and banks, who have to pay a lot to get this information.
Equal rights regardless of the channel
All this is at odds with fundamental rights such as the right to information, freedom of expression and the principle of equal treatment. In the examples above, the government looks at the specific channel while it is not the type of channel that causes undesirable privacy effects. If open data is not allowed, why is it allowed to have this information online, whether or not behind a paywall.
Unwanted effects are supposed to be worth it
The undesirable effects of this kind of old-fashioned registers is known for long. A doctor or nurse may suffer that his or her home address can be found in the BIG register. And judges will not always like it that their other positions are listed. With a company name and company register identification number a natural person could be identified, but where to draw the line. In such a case, (almost) every piece of information can be considered as personal data. The beneficial effect of limited transparency was apparently a good argument to put these records online. The need for transparency was weighed heavier than for example the privacy of an individual physician or accountant.
Address adverse privacy outcomes
For issues that affect privacy, we would do better if we focus on the actual undesirable outcomes. The question must always be asked: Is the privacy argument in this case legitimate? Is it really a problem that details of certain companies be shared? Or is the real problem that entrepreneurs be bothered with spam? Is in the case of sharing company information the real problem that should be tackled price distortion or unfair competition? If identity theft is based on a BSN number, shouldn’t a self-employed entrepreneur get a real VAT number? And is the real problem to be tackled when it comes to information about doctors and judges slander or libel?
Government should protect citizens
We see a task for the legislator: Let the government focus on the enforcement of fundamental rights and fight undesirable outcomes. This applies not only to public personal data but also to anonymization of data. After all, people can still be found through combinations with other data. Let the legislature create frameworks on what is and is not forbidden. The core should be that what you cannot cause undesirable things with public data.
The best false argument to keep everything closed
Much information gathered by the government and used is related to people. If almost any data can be regarded as personal data, it is the best false argument to keep everything closed. The danger is that it becomes impossible to hold the government to account. And before we know it, the worst that could happen is that then wake up in 1984.
It should be clear. We, as Open State Foundation, believe that the privacy-argument is too often misused to prevent people to inform themselves about government actions. This argument is not in the advantage of privacy but goes against all citizens’ rights. This is not what it supposed to be. We are very curious about your experience and opinion about it. We therefore opened a channel on Gitter and invite you to join the debate. Are you interested in a meetup about this, let us know here.