Page 1

22. Science & Society

text Malini Witlox photography Mike Herbst

‘Reinventing privacy because of

smart phones and Google Glass’

It caused a minor scandal on the internet. Customers of Dixons, Mycom and iCentre are being followed via the wireless connection (wifi) of their smart phones as they walk through and past the shops. The sales employees know exactly at which products customers stopped and what route they take. Technologically it’s a piece of cake but if customers aren’t aware of it, it’s illegal. That’s why privacy legislation needs changing, believes BertJaap Koops, Professor of ‘regulating technology’ at Tilburg University.


n 2014, companies and authorities can follow us around the clock via our smart phones and tablets. People carry their entire private lives with them on smart phones or in the cloud, and can be followed in the public space by cameras and drones. Google Glass is on it’s way. That’s why privacy needs reinventing, says Koops, who works at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT). Wifi-tracking by shops in itself isn’t illegal, Koops continues. “Dutch privacy laws state that if data are traceable to persons, the handling of such data must meet all kinds of guarantees. The shops claim they don’t register any personal details and that customers are therefore anonymous. However, MAC-addresses are registered. These are unique identification numbers that link cell phones to their owners and therefore traceable. This doesn’t mean to say that wifi-tracking is banned by law, but customers must be notified that they are being followed by putting up signs at the entrance, for example. This scandal is a good example of the area of tension between technology and privacy.”

Lightning developments The last couple of years, technological developments have been very rapid. Google is currently testing the Google Glass and they’re improving facial recognition technology. However, it often takes years to change the concerning laws. According to Koops you shouldn’t make laws too specific otherwise you’re continuously being overtaken by developments. “Laws are always fairly general. For instance, the Penal Code only states that you’re not allowed to murder people. It doesn’t mention anything about the various methods such as with a knife, a gun or with poison. And it’s not just about the literal text but also about how you interpret a law; judges can include recent developments in

Univers 20 februari 2014

their interpretation. In law, you must look ahead, what are we facing in the next ten years?” In January it was announced that Koops will receive one and a half million Euros from the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek ( Dutch Organization for Scientific Research) or NWO, to study the protection of privacy in the 21st century. Koops wants to focus his research on new ways of protecting privacy by law, without linking this protection to a specific location. He calls it the Inviolability of the Home 2.0. “Before the days of smart phones and tablets, you used to keep all your correspondence at home. The same applied to your books, your music, your photos, your diary. If the police detained a suspect, they’d need a search warrant to haul over the bookcase at home or to go through your correspondence. Nowadays, all this information is readily available on our smart phones. When the police arrest someone, they can read out the cell phone as it was confiscated in the public domain.”

What is allowed? How often the police do this, is unknown to Koops. Partly as there haven’t been any lawyers who have openly made a point of it, yet. “It probably doesn’t happen very often but it is possible. Perhaps lawyers don’t know whether the police do it or can do it. This is something we need to think about. What powers do the police have, what is and what isn’t allowed? The same applies to the Google Glass. In the near future, you’ll be able to recognize people in the streets with it. These things need to be arranged much better, the law needs to be changed in this field. I often discuss this with the policy makers at the Ministry of Safety and Justice.” The coming five years, Koops will study technology and privacy. He wants to focus on eight different countries. Besides the Netherlands these include Germany, Italy, Canada, the USA and the UK. The other two remaining countries aren’t known yet. The NWO’s Vici-subsidy enables him to set up his own research group. “I want to appoint two foreign PhD students. The names of the two remaining countries depend on which judicial systems the PhD students know. Preferably, I’d like to add a Scandinavian or East-European country. I want to investigate how things are arranged in each individual country. Our recommendations will also be interesting for those countries.”

‘Reinventing privacy because of smart phones and Google Glass’  

Univers Magazine, 20 februari 2014. Uitgeverij: Tilburg University. Auteur: Malini Witlox

‘Reinventing privacy because of smart phones and Google Glass’  

Univers Magazine, 20 februari 2014. Uitgeverij: Tilburg University. Auteur: Malini Witlox