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Digital David versus Tech Giant Goliath: Interview with Michiel Leenaars on Radio 1

Michiel Leenaars in the Radio 1 studio.

“Email is a minuscule text file that you transmit across the internet. To claim that you don’t have the competence to arrange that yourself is a sign of administrative incompetence”, said Michiel Leenaars, NLnet's Director of Strategy in an interview on Radio 1 (In Dutch). He responded to a recent report of the thinktank Clingendael Institute which warns that the Dutch government has squandered cloud sovereignty by outsourcing storing vital and sensitive information to American providers.

Host Roos Abelman opened the interview on radio show Spraakmakers by framing the problem: "It is fairly easy for American intelligence agencies to read your Gmail and Hotmail inbox. And so too the Outlook inbox of many Dutch governments and banks. And did you know that all .nl domains are about to be moved to the American cloud? And the same goes for the data of the BKR foundation where every Dutch person with a debt is registered."

Email is older than tech giants

Email is older than any of the American companies that the Dutch governments are currently outsourcing to, said Leenaars. That we've ended up in this situation was not an inevitable outcome, but the result of a series of choices. One of them being that governments have been eliminating IT departments since the 1990s and as a result skills and compentences were lost. But not because nobody knew what was happening. Members of Parliament already urged the administration to make open source primary in its IT strategy more than 20 years ago.

The course of action is clear

"In our circles we don't call it the cloud but 'somebody else's computer'", said Leenaars. "And in this case that computer even falls under a different jurisdiction. American laws like the Patriot Act allow US intelligence agencies to access that data. And they do. We know they do. Politicians know they do. Everybody knows they do because whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that in 2013. And we're putting state secrets on those servers. BKR information, each and every debt of people in the Netherlands, the kompromat of Dutch society."

"And you make yourself vulnerable like that only because it may be ten cents cheaper than hosting it in the Netherlands", said Leenaars. "Is that all it is?", asked interviewer Abelman, "money?". Leenaars: "Yes. The course of action is clear. But there seems to be some sort of fear to take responsibility. Big Tech does not perform magic. It's just time and money. But when it comes to sensitive information this should be the hill we are willing to die on: souvereignity, autonomy. It's okay if that costs time and money. In fact, that should cost time and money."

Digital David versus tech giant Goliath

"NLnet Foundation does not build technology itself", said Leenaars. "We are a decentralized trouble shooting operation for the internet. People come to us and point out problems and offer ideas to fix them. They say for instance: 'there is a vulnerability in this 20 year old protocol'. NLnet financially supports them to tackle the problem."
“Are you a digital David who takes on the fight against tech giant Goliath?”, asked Abelman. [1] “You could look at it like that when you consider the small budgets we work with”, said Leenaars. "But there isn’t one David, there are millions of Davids. It’s more like the Lilliputtians against Gulliver, you can win because you are with so many more.”

[1] This question was asked earlier in the broadcast and is not part of the segmented interview linked to above. You can hear the question on the 00:56:34 time mark and other contributions of Leenaars in the complete episode of the Spraakmakers program.