Dutch Police Social Media Activity Raise Privacy Concerns

Following a Bellingcat workshop, a group of investigative journalists from the Dutch public broadcaster KRO-NCRV spent the last six months investigating social media platforms used by the Dutch National Police Force. After analyzing data and footage from YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, we reached the following conclusion: Dutch police are sometimes careless with the privacy of victims or suspects. Thomas Mulder, one of the journalists, explains how they conducted their investigation.

On April 12, 2017, we met with privacy expert Rejo Zenger in order to find out more about camera surveillance in the Netherlands. After a few minutes of conversation, Zenger mentioned bodycams and video material from the Dutch police as an interesting lead. The Dutch police are currently experimenting with body cameras, Zenger said, but this led to a series of questions: How do the police deal with surveillance camera footage? Do they have to ask permission when they want to use a camera?

The privacy expert also advised us to look into videos made by the police and uploaded on YouTube to help answer some of these questions.

We decide to follow Zenger’s advice by investigating videos shared on YouTube that have been uploaded by the Dutch police. Soon we found a vlogger by the name of Jan-Willem Schut–a police officer from Almere who has his own YouTube channel where he has uploaded videos showing his normal working day since May 30, 2016. As of when this article was written, Jan-Willem had over a massive audience with 130,000 subscribers and over 14 million views on his YouTube channel.

Jan-Willem is not the only police officer in the Netherlands who has become a sort of YouTube sensation, though he is probably the most popular. In Amsterdam, police officer Tess is also active as a vlogger on YouTube, with over 12,000 subscribers and over a half-million views. When randomly selecting some of these police vloggers’ videos, we came to the conclusion that while these videos are entertaining to watch, they also can create potentially major privacy problems.

Analyzing 46 hours of video

We analyzed forty-six hours of video uploaded by Jan-Willem to survey potential privacy issues. We start this survey with a video of Jan-Willem where he tells the audience that he has to deliver some legal documents at the beginning of his shift.

Meanwhile, we can see him driving on a motorbike through the streets of Utrecht, the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands. The police officer gets off his bike and walks up the stairs to a house on the side of the road.

At first sight, this section of the video seems like an innocent fragment of everyday life for the police officer that has been sanitized to eliminate issues of privacy: the person to whom the legal documents must be delivered is not at home, and the number of the house is also blurred for privacy reasons. However, despite the carefulness of the vlogger in blurring details, we can still easily trace back the address by tracking back part of the route towards this house.

Because of this example, our interest was triggered enough to survey dozens of hours of video material and determine if it was possible to figure out the exact addresses of locations shown.

Geolocating videos

We are using an example of one of the videos from vlogger Jan-Willem to explain how we did conducted our investigation. In this particular video, the police officer is called to inspect a garden because the owners refused to do maintenance on it.

We know that the police agent is working in a part of a city called Almere-Buiten, so this city will be our start of the investigation. The first shot is taken from inside a police vehicle, which then turns right on a roundabout. Now, if we stop the video here, we see road signs on the left side and on the right side, with the latter sign reading: “Sumatraweg, Indischebuurt”.

We entered these terms on Google Maps, taking us to a street. A bit further in the video we see a sign on a building with the text: “De Wegwijzer”, a church sign. These two tips (the sign of Sumatraweg and De Wegwijzer) leads us to the following outcome: a street called De Evenaar. Simple geolocation confirms that this is the same road that the police officer is driving on.

Later in this video, we see vlogger Jan-Willem stepping over a fence of a garden. In the background we can see two separate houses, a number of different trees, and solar panels on the roof of a house. When we fast forward the video a few seconds, we are able to see two recognizable objects: on the left, a flat concrete wall, and on the other side, a low-hanging roof. With these observations in mind, we can search in the vicinity of De Evenaar (the road we already found earlier).

After a search of approximately ten minutes, we found a street in a neighborhood called Stripheldenbuurt in Almere-Buiten, which resembles the objects we found. From the satellite view, we mainly see the characteristics of the concrete wall, the low-hanging roof, and the solar panels. After we checked all the objects from the video with the satellite view in Google Maps, we know for sure that we are at the correct place. If we put street view in the exact same corner as the policeman is holding his camera, we can confirm the video was recorded in Stripheldenbuurt.

Obviously this example does not have any high drama or show how a felon was caught in a dramatic police chase. However, if this is not about an overgrown garden, but about domestic violence or another sensitive topic, even if the faces of the suspects or victims are blurred? 

This problem is not entirely new, and clearly not restricted to the Netherlands. In the United States, there are entire genres of television shows revolving around showing police officers carry out their work, including the long-running television series Cops and the new, controversial television series Live PD. For decades, the work of police officers has been broadcast around the world as entertainment; however, with nearly unlimited access to public satellite and street-level imagery, the identities of suspects and victims can now easily be outed despite rudimentary measure of privacy protection carried out by these programs.

Results of our investigation

In sum, we watched almost 46 hours of videos in 178 different clips. In 23 circumstances, we were able to trace back the exact locations of incidents–and this only concerns videos from two different Youtube channels.

Together with journalists from television program De Monitor, we continued this investigation to a range of posts from police platforms on social media beyond the two vloggers, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. According to Program Director New Media of the police, Ron de Milde, 2,300 police officers use Twitter. There are also 300 public Facebook accounts used by the Dutch police.

No policy on police social media

To check these numbers mentioned by Ron de Milde, we created a scraper that retrieves the social media accounts linked to police agents. After the scraper did its job, we retrieved different numbers, namely: 900 police officers are using Twitter, 175 police officers use Facebook, and 132 police officers are active on Instagram.

We assume that the information on the official website of the police is incomplete, because after searching on Twitter, we also find accounts not listed on their official website. It seems impossible to get a total overview of the social media accounts that are in use by the police due to the large number of individual actors.

We only analyzed known social media accounts with, among others, the School for Journalism in Utrecht, who helped us analyze photos and videos on these accounts. We can conclude that in many of these social media posts, the privacy of victims or suspects was compromised.

In a broadcast on De Monitor about this investigation, Dutch police responded to our results with the conclusion that guidelines for social media are not necessary. Their conclusion stated that police officers are professionals who need to weigh a number of considerations before sending a tweet or sharing a Facebook message.

After the broadcast of De Monitor, the Dutch police opened a complaints desk on its own website where citizens can submit complaints if they believe their privacy was compromised or if they were unfavorable portrayed on a police officer’s social media account. In addition, a few videos from the popular vlogger Jan-Willem were taken offline from his Youtube channel. Lastly, on January 30th, a follow-up broadcast on this investigation was aired.

Thomas Mulder is a datajournalist from KRO-NCRV. The other journalists, who’ve worked on this case are Jerry Vermanen, Marije Rooze (both KRO-NCRV data) Daan Jansen, Judith Meulendijks (De Monitor) and Rene Sommer (Editor in chief).