privacy

Dutch bill seeks to give law enforcement hacking powers

The Dutch government Thursday presented a draft bill that aims to give law enforcement the power to hack into computer systems—including those located in foreign countires—to do research, gather and copy evidence or block access to certain data.

Law enforcement should be allowed to block access to child pornography, read emails that contain information exchanged between criminals and also be able to place taps on communication, according to a draft bill published Thursday and signed by Ivo Opstelten, the Minister of Security and Justice. Government agents should also be able to engage in activities such as turning on a suspect’s phone GPS to track their location, the bill said.

Ivo Opstelten, Dutch minister of Safety and Justice

Opstelten announced last October he was planning to craft this bill.

Encryption of electronic data is increasingly becoming a problem for the police if they want to place taps, the draft reads. Services like Gmail and Twitter use standard encryption and many other services like Facebook and Hotmail provide encryption as an option while some smartphones automatically encrypt communication, it said. Moreover, services like Skype, WhatsApp and VPN-services can easily be encrypted.

Right now, the law enforcement agencies do not have the ability to adequately cope with encryption during criminal investigations, and this needs to change, according to the bill.

Another problem is tackling distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that recently have been used to cripple the online services of Dutch banks and DigiD, an identity management platform used by Dutch government agencies. Criminals can use botnets paralyze vital parts of society and law enforcement needs better measures to deal with them, the bill’s authors argued.

To disable a botnet it is necessary to access the command and control servers that control the botnet which can be located in a foreign country, according to the bill. The new investigative powers would also allow law enforcement to infiltrate computers or servers located in foreign countries if the location of those computers cannot be determined.

The bill also aims to force suspects who possess child pornography and suspects who are linked to terrorism activities to decrypt files on their computers. Ignoring such a decryption demand can lead to a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment.

Fencing of stolen data would also become punishable in order to prevent the misuse of stolen data that is published on the Internet after a hack or burglary. Publishing stolen data could land offenders in prison for a maximum of one year.

The bill foresees strict safeguards for the use of the new powers such as a the approval of a judge, the certification of software used and keeping logs of the investigation data.

The draft bill immediately drew criticism.

“It is important that the government wants to combat cybercrime but this proposal is rushed: it is unnecessary and creates new security risks for citizens,” said Simone Halink of Dutch digital rights organization Bits of Freedom in a blog post on Thursday. The proposal ignores alternatives, she said, adding that the police already has the power to fight online crime but lacks knowledge and manpower to do so efficiently. A better solution would be to increase police manpower instead of increasing their digital investigation powers, she added.

Moreover, the pending Dutch legislation could set an example for other governments which could start an arms race between hacking governments, she said. Governments should be closing security holes, and not leave them open, she said.

Bits of Freedom called on Dutch citizens to reach out to the government and asked the government to reconsider the bill.

At the moment the draft bill is in the consultation phase, meaning parties involved such as the police and other law enforcement as well as citizens and advisory bodies will be able to comment on it, ministry spokesman Wiebe Alkema said. Following that, the bill will be sent to sent to the Council of Ministers after which it will be sent to the Dutch Council of State, an advisory body on legislation. The bill will probably be send to the House of Representatives by the end of the year, he said.

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