Concerns over bill to force telecom providers to share data with authorities

Telecom providers are concerned about a bill that will temporarily force them to collect more data about people's travel behavior and share that anonymously with the Dutch authorities. The idea is that the data will be shared with public health institute RIVM to help track and fight the spread of the coronavirus, but telecom providers are worried that it will eventually also end up with intelligence and investigative services, sources from inside the telecom industry told NOS.

When this bill takes effect, telecom providers must supply Statistics Netherlands with anonymous data about people's movements between municipalities on a daily basis. The stats office will combine this data with other information from other sources, and then forward it to the RIVM. The RIVM believes that this data will help detect outbreaks faster. For example, if there is a coronavirus outbreak in Utrecht and the data shows that many people from Rotterdam visited the city, the Rotterdam GGD can be alerted.

Telecom providers have their doubts about exactly how anonymous this data will be, according to NOS' sources. For example, providers will have to determine which municipality someone is from. One source said that this means the new database for this data will show which municipalities someone had been to in the past 30 days based on transmission mast data. From this it can be deduced where the person was most often, which is likely their place of residence. Traceable data will have to be linked to this, for example a 06 number that is converted into a unique code. And that makes  it relatively easy to find out who the number is connected to.

According to the broadcaster's sources, people inside the telecom industry are concerned that this new database will quickly become interesting to investigative services, because this type of data is not currently being collected. 

Researcher Matthijs Koot, who did his PhD on data anonymity at the University of Amsterdam, confirmed to NOS that there is still a lot of ambiguity around this legislative proposal. "At the moment, there is indeed a chance that the legislation will be implemented in such a way that the data is not entirely anonymous," he said. 

The Ministry of Economic Affairs told NOS that the technical implementation of this bill is still being examined by Statistics Netherlands, the RIVM, and the telecom providers. The bill still has to pass through the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, and the Eerste Kamer, the Dutch Senate. If it  is implemented, it will expire after one year. But there is an option to extend it.