An investigation by RTL Nieuws has revealed that the passport photos of millions of internationals living and working in the Netherlands are automatically included in a database by the Dutch police – regardless of whether individuals have a criminal record or not.
Database stores photos of 6,5 million expats in the Netherlands
According to a report published by RTL Nieuws, asylum seekers and those who relocate to the Netherlands from outside the European Union to live, work or study automatically have their passport photos stored in a massive database by the Dutch police. This also applies to individuals without a known criminal record.
The database features 8 million photos, 6,5 million of which are known to be of people who don’t hold Dutch citizenship (i.e. refugees, expats, and international students). As RTL Nieuws explains, these individuals “are obliged to have a passport photo taken, for example for their residence permit. Unbeknownst to them, a copy of it goes to a police system.”
It is one of two key databases used by Dutch authorities; the second is a list of 1,2 million Dutch people and internationals who have been identified as suspects by the police or have been convicted of a criminal offence. This database includes 2,7 million photos.
Dutch government and police defend legality of database
The police use the photos in the database for CATCH, a system designed to trace suspects using facial recognition which has been in operation since 2016. The database is particularly useful when police have an image of a suspect, but don’t know their identity or whereabouts.
The police do, however, need the permission of an examining magistrate in order to search the database, and the police say this only happened twice in 2022. “That shows the restraint of use,” a police spokesperson told RTL Nieuws. “Because it only concerns two cases, we do not make any statements about the results or the type of cases in connection with traceability.”
The Ministry of Justice and Security has defended the database, explaining that system follows Dutch law because the rules “regarding fingerprints are in practice applied in the same way to facial images.” Similarly, a spokesperson for the police said strict rules are adhered to in order to make use of the database: “We cannot and must not use it lightly.”
Experts concerned police database breaks Dutch law
But RTL Nieuws found that various immigration and human rights experts – including the Dutch Data Protection Authority – have raised concerns about the legality of the database, arguing that the police are breaking the law by including photos of innocent internationals in the police system. According to the EU’s Court of Justice, police databases such as this one are only allowed if the law “is sufficiently clear and precise.”
“With the two databases, the police treat foreigners the same as suspects, only because they came to the Netherlands from outside the European Union for work, study, a loved one or as a refugee,” Dr Fieke Jansen, a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff University, explained to RTL Nieuws. “If they had done something wrong, they would have been in that other database.”
Expats living in the Netherlands have also expressed their confusion and frustration with the system. “I imagine a lot of people are uncomfortable with it,” one American student said to RTL Nieuws. “You expect the government to be transparent about this and accountable. We’re clearly being treated differently. If the goal really is to solve crime, why isn’t everyone’s face in it?”
Thumb: Dmytro Zinkevych via Shutterstock.com.