On Monday evening, the head of the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), Rob Bertholee, met with students on campus to discuss the Wiv. Young people in particular are sceptical about the new law: the most recent survey shows that 42 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds oppose the changed law. After the AIVD boss shared his perspectives, 71 percent of the over 130 attendees indicated that they would vote for the new law, whereas only a quarter of them were in favour when the evening started.

Five questions for Rob Bertholee (AIVD) and Dimitri Tokmetzis (data reporter for De Correspondent and author of Je hebt wél iets te verbergen (‘You do have something to hide’).

  1. When are intelligence services allowed to monitor my app messages, chats and searches?

Bertholee: “When we have reason to believe that someone poses a threat to the Netherlands. In such cases the AIVD may use these authorities, under strict conditions, to determine the individual’s precise plans. The fear that we will constantly be looking over people’s shoulders online is unfounded. We will always perform the most targeted searches possible for information about people who form a threat to our country. Our objective is always to defend our democratic rule of law and national security. Precisely so that citizens can keep expressing their points of view.”

Tokmetzis: “In effect, the services are already able to do so, but the new law would make it a lot easier for them. If your housemate is under suspicion, the AIVD would actually be allowed to tap all online communications in your student house. I think calling it a gigantic ‘trawl’ is a bit too rich – that would basically yield more information than could be effectively processed. However, it will be difficult for the AIVD to quickly determine which information is relevant for the investigation and which isn’t. This means that innocent citizens will often be tracked for an unnecessarily long time.”

  1. The new law authorises services to hack my telephone or laptop. Why is this even allowed when I’m not suspected of any wrongdoing?

Tokmetzis: “That’s a fairly unpleasant aspect of this new law. It was mainly added to allow the services to operate more efficiently: far-reaching hacking authorities allow them to break into the systems of innocent third parties to reach suspects’ telephones or servers. I find this approach a bit lazy, and don’t believe it can be justified from a constitutional point of view.”

Bertholee: “The AIVD is only able to set up an investigation when there is reason to believe that someone poses a threat to national security. In this context we always weigh up whether the means are proportionate to the ends, and whether we can’t suffice with a less intrusive instrument to achieve the same results. In other words, we aren’t allowed to hack a laptop or phone whenever we please. Incidentally, it’s already possible to hack a third-party device under the existing Wiv.”

‘We always weigh up whether the means are proportionate to the ends’

Rob Bertholee, Director-General of the AIVD
Image credit: Aysha Gasanova
  1. How will universities’ academic freedom – e.g. the security of confidential research data and the exchange of information – be guaranteed under the new law?

Bertholee: “The AIVD has been established precisely to protect our freedom – including that of academics. For example, one of our tasks is investigating possible cases of espionage – which can also target scientific information. In principle, we have no interest whatsoever in confidential research data or the exchange of information within the academic community. The AIVD will only move into action in response to a potential threat to national security or the democratic rule of law.”

Tokmetzis: “Academics whose research focuses on radicalisation, for example – be it radical Islamism or the far right – enjoy insufficient protection under the new law. And the same applies for journalists and lawyers – they also maintain contacts with people who are under suspicion. The new law will make it more difficult for them to remain in touch. I’m a journalist myself, and if the AIVD wants to hack me, they’ll be able to eventually. Although I do take various measures to discourage this – and so should you as an academic. Encrypt your research data and communications, don’t share any confidential files online and use computers that are disconnected from the internet.”


PhD student cybersecurity Bernold Nieuwesteeg about the new intelligence act

‘New Intelligence Act is a silly act’

The new Dutch Intelligence and Security Services Act is often presented as a choice…

  1. How will the renewed law help intelligence services to prevent future attacks?

Bertholee: “Our current law stems from 2002. The security situation around the world has changed since then – with the on-going development of technology playing a key role in this. Terrorist attacks are directed and organised via information channels that we are not allowed to investigate under the existing law. Cyberattacks are executed via the digital highway. The new law updates our investigation options, allowing us to combine multiple sources of information and making it easier for us to exchange information with foreign intelligence services. This makes it easier for us to do our job.”

Tokmetzis: “When you look at the attacks committed in Europe and America these past few years, the problem has never been a lack of information: the perpetrators tended to be known to the security services. I wonder whether the law will actually help prevent any attacks, because gaining access to more information isn’t always the better option. It’s about determining who will be doing what, and when, at an early stage.”

‘This referendum is a final opportunity for us to indicate that legislators should come up with a better proposal than the one on the table right now’

Dimitri Tokmetzis, journalist for De Correspondent
  1. What would you like to tell students before they cast their vote on 21 March?

Tokmetzis: “Don’t get too radical about it, but nevertheless, vote against the renewed law on 21 March. And try to also understand the AIVD’s considerations and arguments, because they’re valid enough in themselves: the old law definitely needs to be updated. This referendum is a final opportunity for us to indicate that legislators should come up with a better proposal than the one on the table right now: more safeguards when it comes to the supervision of the security services themselves, and more clearly defined hacking authorities.”

Bertholee: “Vote in favour of the act. It will help ensure the security of the Netherlands – offset by the smallest possible invasion of your privacy. It’s more or less impossible to completely rule out any invasion of privacy, nor can we guarantee complete safety at all times. However, these two issues are in balance in the new act. Don’t just vote with your gut feeling; don’t just go by the glib term ‘trawling law’ – actually look into it a bit further. A good place to start could be the summary written by the Referendum Committee.”