Dutch voters just shot down a major spying law that would allow DNA database

The legislation may now face revision, even though the prime minister supports it.

Dutch voters narrowly rejected a controversial law on Wednesday which would have given government intelligence agencies the power to carry out mass surveillance.

Both houses of parliament had already approved the proposed law, but the issue went to a national referendum after more than 300,000 people signed a petition expressing their opposition. While the referendum was non-binding, Prime Minister Mark Rutte pledged to take the outcome seriously. The legislation may now face revision, even though the prime minister supports it.


With 89 percent of the vote counted on Thursday, the “no” vote had 48.8 percent, to the “yes” campaign’s 47.3 percent. Exit polls, however, had shown the vote going the opposite way.

The so-called “trawling” law would give the two Dutch intelligence agencies, if approved by an independent panel, new powers to:

  • electronically tap an entire geographic area
  • hack electronic devices
  • create a DNA database
  • keep data for three years and share it with foreign allies

Opponents of the legislation, such as the digital rights group Bits of Freedom, argued that the proposed law could result in widespread privacy violations.

“Voters have given a clear signal,” the group’s director Hans de Zwart said in response to the referendum results. “This law is not good enough and needs fundamental improvements.”

The group vowed to challenge the law in court if the government did not heed the message from voters.

The Netherlands’ Council of State, the body responsible for vetting new laws, also said the law allowed for a disproportionate amount of data collection and could breach European privacy laws.

Supporters of the law, however, argued the law was necessary to counter the terrorism threats and bring Dutch intelligence services in line with American, British, and French intelligence services, which have sweeping electronic surveillance powers.

“It’s not that our country is unsafe, it’s that this law will make it safer,” Rutte said ahead of the vote.

Cover image: A picture of spy Mata Hari can be seen as part of an installation in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, 27 January 2018. Mata Hari is the city's most famous figure. Leeuwarden is the European capital of culture 2018. (Friso Gentsch/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)