Respect for the secret service
"Wow," was our first reaction to the scoop of newspapers De Volkskrant and Nieuwsuur earlier this month. The papers recounted the story of how the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) had broken into a ring of Russian hackers, and for years was able to see how they, in turn, hacked the American government. It is an impressive achievement of the AIVD and undoubtedly commands respect and praise.
Good piece of investigative journalism
The revelations are also a great achievement of the newspaper and news journalism. This kind of research is particularly complicated. The journalists cannot rely on a single informant, and it is difficult to confirm information. Very often, anyone involved in such a story will only tell a journalist something along the lines of, "I can neither confirm nor deny it."
This is logical, because the secret services' working methods is a matter of state secrecy: leaking is criminally punishable. The fact that the journalists were able to get this story confirmed shows that it is a good example of investigative journalism.
In whose interests?
Naturally, the first thought that comes to mind is that the AIVD deliberately leaked this, possibly with the help of the Americans, by using Volkskrant and Nieuwsuur. It is of course favourable if the security service comes into the news positively, especially this close to the referendum. Yet we do not really believe that seductive scenario. The AIVD does not benefit from the fact that its working methods are publicly discussed in such detail. The service is not a "secret service" for nothing. Such a leak can also have serious political consequences for our country and the service itself. Apart from this, the revelations only show that the AIVD is able to hack in an extremely effective way within the current legal framework. Nothing more and nothing less.
Ballyhoo for political gain
We are therefore not using this story in the context of the referendum. That would be way too easy. The one who used the story for their own political gain, to justify (or "promote," as Nieuwsuur put it) the new Intelligence and Security Act, is the government. Both the minister of the interior and the prime minister were unable to say anything substantive in their reaction to the revelations, but did emphasize immediately that these new competences are really necessary.
And that seems strange, because the effectiveness of the AIVD's competence to break into other people's computers does not say anything about the necessity of the new Intelligence and Security Act. The government's response is, especially with the lack of substantive argumentation, only ballyhoo for political gain.
Author: Rejo Zenger, researcher at Bits of Freedom