Dutch press agency hacked by civil servants

Dutch press agency hacked by civil servants
Dutch press agency hacked by civil servants 

By Rob Kievit

Press freedom is almost sacred in the Netherlands, and direct government 
interference is unheard of.  No Dutch cabinet, whatever its political 
complexion, would risk being accused of muzzling the press. The 
Netherlands ranks 12th on the 169-country Worldwide Press Freedom Index, 
published annually by Reporters without Borders.

That is why a furore is raging over an apparent case of government 
personnel spying on the independent GPD press agency. Since June 2006, 
civil servants at the ministry of Social Affairs reportedly logged on 
secretly to GPD's internal computer network. Not just once or twice, but 
almost daily.


Apparently the civil servants gained access using passwords and codes 
belonging to a former GPD employee and a journalist still working at the 
agency. For over a year, government staff were snooping around in the 
newsroom computers of GPD and its associated newspapers.

GPD discovered the intrusions when the ministry's press office contacted 
the agency to ask for changes in an unpublished story - a portrait of 
Social Affairs Minister Piet-Hein Donner.


The main journalists' union, NVJ, reacted angrily. "The government is 
trampling on the independent role that journalism is supposed to play," 
says NVJ general secretary, Thomas Bruning.

The Lower House of Parliament has summoned Social Affairs Minister 
Donner and Media Minister Ronald Plasterk to provide an explanation. 
They may have to fire the staff members concerned.

So far, the Ministry of Social Affairs has only issued a terse 

   "We regret that this has happened. It is not government policy, and 
   we reject such practices. Our ministry will investigate the matter 
   and take measures to prevent a repetition." And that is all the 
   Ministry wants to say, having handed the case to its lawyers.

GPD Editor-in-Chief Marcel van Lingen is considering taking the case to 
court. The agency accuses the government of espionage. Meanwhile, the 
public prosecutor is investigating whether any criminal offences have 
been committed.


Other press agencies like ANP, and the news departments of national 
public and commercial television are investigating whether they, too, 
have been the target of government intrusions.

The spying row highlights the risks of keeping sensitive information on 
a computer system that is connected to the outside world. Although entry 
was only possible for GPD staff and clients, their computer system was 
not sufficiently armed against unwanted visitors.

Some blame must go to the agency for not ensuring better protection, but 
surely the major blame lies with the Ministry of Social Affairs, which 
should have banned its staff from breaking into press agency computers.

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