The risks entailed by Covid passports in the light of the recent Dutch child benefit scandal
Since 25 September 2021, a QR code or the CoronaCheck app has been required by law for access to several kinds of public venue in the Netherlands. The introduction of these Covid passports has gone off almost without a hitch; a large section of the Dutch population has gone along with using the app or a QR code to gain admission to a café or conference.
This article concentrates on the risks that are concomitant with introducing such a Covid passport in the context of recent revelations from the Dutch child benefit scandal, which prompted the (largely symbolic) resignation of the governing coalition in January 2021 and which has been blamed on faulty computer models.
The reason why I take this approach to the topic is that the child benefit revelations have brought to light just how appallingly things can go wrong in agencies of the national government, and that virtually every check, balance and watchdog body can fail. In the Dutch child benefit issue, the perpetrators in the civil service—in a comprehensive show of defiance redolent of the recent IRS scandal in the United States—managed to frustrate the purpose of:
- the judiciary;
- the National Ombudsman;
- the Privy Council;
- the House of Representatives;
- ministers of state;
- investigatory committees;
- the Piet Hein Donner Inquiry;
- and Freedom of Information requests.
Something equally pertinent to Covid which the child benefit scandal highlights is that there are domains of government that are altogether unequal to the task of resolving problems. Moreover, the scandal has revealed that politicians and the Cabinet have lost their grip.
Litany of government failures
- The Dutch Tax Administration has not been GDPR-compliant for three years now. They have told their governing minister that it will take them until 2024 to be in compliance. Would a private-sector company get away with that?
- The resignations of a string of secretaries of state, junior ministers and even the collapse of the governing coalition have had precisely zero effect on the scandal. The problems created for the affected parents persist. It is apparent that it takes the Civil Service months to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Initiatives get stuck at the stage of reports and directives; hardly anything is done.
- Government has failed to live up to its word, including reneging on undertakings made at Cabinet level and thwarting the will of parliamentary votes. One example is the Tax Authority's failure to get the running of its archives in order, where the case files of 9,000 victims of the child benefit scandal were destroyed.
- Prominent Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt was actively briefed against by the parliamentary leader of his own party, as well by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, to shut him up on the issue (instead of giving him an undertaking that the matters would be looked into). Omtzigt's impertinent questions about the scandal caused such a stink behind the scenes that during fresh cabinet negotiations, the Bilderberg Group attendee Kajsa Ollongren "accidentally on purpose" made visible to press photographers a memo describing the removal of Omtzigt from the House of Representatives ("offer him a job elsewhere") as a bargaining chip; this nearly led to Parliament demanding that the King dismiss Rutte as prime minister.
- Judges have without fail ruled in favour of the taxman in individual lawsuits pursuant to the scandal. The Tax Authority systematically provided the courts with incomplete evidence bundles, and even the Privy Council (Raad van State, alias Council of State; the supreme legal body) nodded it all through. Fortunately, judges did apologise just last week for this breach of duty and have promised to amend their ways, prompted by a report on their failings that had come out the same morning. So at least the judiciary, if no-one else, shows some signs of being able to reflect on their own conduct.
- Civil servants in taxation blacklisted Dutch citizens on the basis of big-data algorithms—with no legal standing whatsoever to do so. In many instances, the benefits blacklisting was nothing short of racial profiling!
- The recent report of an inquiry by PricewaterhouseCoopers into how aware the Tax Authority was of a 2017 memorandum by senior civil servant Sandra Palmen-Schlangen (a legal advisor overseeing tax credits who warned her colleagues of the problem and of "reprehensible conduct" internally as far back as then) was pre-censored before publication by the Tax Authority itself. RTL journalist Pieter Klein has demonstrated that the 17 September 2021 draft of the PwC report included a finding that the then Director-General of the Tax Authority, Jaap Uijlenbroek, lied under oath to a parliamentary committee when he insisted that he had not been aware of the Palmen Memo.
- Parliamentary and press questions about these issues were left studiedly unanswered, and when pressure mounted, civil servants came up with the written response: "We do not find it necessary to answer this question."
Should any of the above failures occur in the business world, managers and staff would have been sacked, customers would have gone over to competitors, and the company itself would in all likelihood have gone bust.
The Dutch Government is not known for its adequacy at the best of times, but sadly this degree of incompetence is far from exceptional by its own standards. The Groningen gasfield earthquakes scandal, the PFAS irremovable pollution scandal, the scandal of what turned out to be fatuous regulation of the Amsterdam housing market, and the bogus "nitrous oxide" threat, which has now become a farm expropriations scandal, are but a few of the other recent dossiers for which this government is responsible.
Covid passport developments in other countries
Turning to other developed countries, we see that "papers, please" are now being demanded for a wide range of everyday activities. Italy is banning people from going to work without proof of Covid status, effective 15 October 2021. Slovenia has banned people from shopping or even buying fuel without a Covid passport. Canada has given its public servants until the end of the month to get the jab or be suspended without pay, and has also announced that public transport will be banned to the unjabbed as of late November. Israel returns the jabbed to unclean status if they fail to get a third shot. Numerous Israelis have been fired for not undergoing the injection.
It is quite possible that the Netherlands will join the ranks of these countries in the months to come. The pseudo-law on social distancing has been dropped, but autumn is drawing in and it is certainly not inconceivable that the Dutch "case rate" will shortly shoot up; not least because the various producers' Covid jabs have been oversold and have proven less effective than claimed.
Mandatory vaccinations nothing new
Measures such as the aforementioned Canadian and Italian edicts are textbook examples of forced vaccination. As a phenomenon, vaccine mandates have a long history: here in the Netherlands, for instance, the 1872 Infectious Diseases Act removed teachers and pupils from school if they could not furnish proof of inoculation against smallpox.
Enter the Covid passport
The situation in a range of countries, then—and the Netherlands might well soon join them—is that your permitted participation in society depends on an app on an electronic device. Viewed centrally, people are thus dependent on technology overseen by the government. This affords government control of an ocean of structured, real-world data about citizens. It is far from certain that these national apps will ever be taken down again: examples are legion of "temporary government measures" that ended up being rather permanent. Of course, many inventive extensions of the requirement for Covid status could be thought up—it could be coupled to passports, driving licences, etc.—and this linkage is what is unprecedented in history.
Considering Covid passports from the perspective of the Dutch child benefits scandal, then, the questions that we ought to be asking are: What if the same immoral bunch of civil servants who gave us the benefits scandal got their hands on our data? and: What if they could cancel people they took a dislike to with the press of a single button? Is it desirable that national government obtain such a quantity of power?
And is it even proportional in terms of Covid? And how smoothly will the technology prove to work, given the lamentable quality of service that government provides in the realm of IT projects?
The conclusion is clear enough: Abolish Covid passports at once!