The good, the bad and the fugly; the “Covid Behavioural Challenge”

We have seen the Dutch government employ behavioral-modifying measures throughout the pandemic, from hard to soft, some enforced with policing and fines, some on an advisory basis. We’ve seen shifting in these on a biweekly basis, from advice to explicit mandates, ‘new ideas’ implemented and enforced immediately, like our mask-mandate in public transport and shops wasn’t compulsory at first and got changed to an offense after a few months. Or the direct implementation of our, critically received, litigated, curfew laws, all to slow the spread of infections.

While in the final stages of publishing this piece the competition’s webite is suddenly completely emptied(!) Why would they scrub the website??

Oops! “this page cannot be found”; 404! 😮 😡

Behavioural Insights Netwerk‘, a Dutch government organization, and the Behavior Change Group, a private entity, have joined forces to come up with a challenge to get “well-founded, promising and innovative ideas” for behavior modification surrounding the ongoing pandemic. They have awarded prizes (not grants) to 9 winning promotional ideas ranging 3 topics; (footnotes1,2,3)

  1. Promoting staying home and getting tested
  2. Promoting vaccination against Covid-19
  3. Promoting mental health

Winners in each category get 15.000, 10.000 and 5.000 € respectively.. That’s 90.000 € of taxpayer money not counting setup costs for the competition itself(!) The ideas coming out of this competition range from sensible, predictable, to very very ‘shitty’. I’ll mention some good ideas and some of the bad. Going from one category to the next.(footnote4)

Promoting staying home and getting tested

There is only one sensible winning idea in this category and it got the 3rd place prize; An online checklist where symptomatic people can check if people with similar symptoms in their direct area tested positive recently. The other to ideas are ‘bad’ (in my opinion); 1st place went to a “Stay Home Challenge” where housemates of positive testcases get a ‘challenge’ to stay at home, possibly given incentives to do so(?). The runner up consists of an online campaign and quiz to make a personal or household quarantine plan, again the competition will likely be incentivized to boost interest.

Promoting vaccinations

This is the most egregious category, winners seem linearly bound to how intrusive ideas are! Least intrusive (3rd place) goes to promoting vaccine buddies, this means people are motivated to get vaccinated with friends, housemates (or family members?). Going from there it get pretty predictable; gathering non-factual-, non-sensible- stories from role-models for ‘narrative persuasion’! (it states this; I’m not making it up!) Finally first place goes to creating an ‘opt-out-registry‘ for vaccinations, akin to our existing opt-out for organ donor consent; a horrible system in my opinion! I’ll grant that this vaccine-focused version seemingly isn’t to force-inject people, but rather to hound them with messages reminding them to get their shot(s). I’m expecting this idea to mainly lead to a lot of paper-waste trying to stimulate behavior (compliance).

Promoting mental health

The final category is the field I do feel has been lacking in this health-scare; trying to positively influence the mental-health-pandemic (resulting from fear, the staunch measures and the general air of alarmism). That isn’t to say the ideas are all sound or desirable. First place winner’s idea is actually pretty good; intervening the mindset of older people (50+) together with artists and musicians, to boost a positive mindset. Last place ‘Happy at home’ is gearing towards the youth to question them and occupy them with assignments, also a good idea because our youth is reporting mental anguish through the lockdowns and loss of social- and physical-engagement. The rising stress-levels and reports of depressions in kids and households with children is worrying.

The first runner-up in this last category deserves it’s own paragraph because of the predictability that this stupid, wasteful, ‘original idea‘ would get traction; employing social media influencers.. (Barf!) ‘Influencers’ don’t do anything without getting paid, first off, secondly; they majorly push things through false advertisements already. They promote faulty products, or products that don’t comply with laws, services that don’t deliver, basically anything their ‘management’ can negotiate a price on!

Why would we even need to promote vaccinations? According to our deputy prime minister Hugo de Jonge our population’s vaccine preparedness mirrors ‘Korean levels‘ of willingness. Doesn’t that ‘factiod‘ mirror reality?

If this were the case it wouldn’t be the first time numbers were fudged this pandemic. Lately we’ve been inundated with news and opinion-pieces pushing the idea of ‘Covid-passports’. There is a clear campaign already going on that aims to boost the idea that getting your shots is a privilege, (bc) supplies are limited. Any talk of possible side effects and numerological fakery is actively combatted.

Wastefulness of this competition trend

The structuring of this competition is unusual; usually competitions grant startup capital for innovative ideas, so money goes towards implementing/operating a new initiative, towards the goal itself and only benefitting the persons behind the idea indirectly. Given the assignment required entries to project costs of starting-up and operating their ideas, this poses the question; Where is the rest of the monies needed coming from? What’s the complete operational budget of all of these plans?(footnote5)

This way of externalizing initiative doesn’t point at laziness or a lack of scope of the organizations behind the competition (imo In My Opinion). I doubt these ‘cognitive institutes’ lacked originality to come up with similar ideas themselves, rather I believe they theorized that ‘crowd-sourcing‘ these types of ideas grants some sort of ‘legitimization‘ and shields them from direct critique themselves.(!) Furthermore this structuring and way of rewarding people lump sums of free-to-spend-cash, leads me to believe that the ‘cognitive experts‘ themselves felt the normal way of ‘incentivizing’ (rewarding) wouldn’t motivate enough response, which would have dampened the plurality of ideas for them to pick and choose from.(!)

The result is that these scientists and our government received a ‘plethora’ of ideas to choose from and created the air of legitimacy to spend further money on these initiatives! Theses ideas aren’t very new or unique, just very critically received before; when some of them were coined earlier in the pandemic! Some of these ‘behavior modifying measures’ were indeed lacking, like improving mental health, a field that has seen budgetary cuts in years leading up to the pandemic.

Some existing measures, like the mandate to wear symbolic non-medical-masks, to follow arbitrary non-scientifically based 1.5-meter distancing rules and some of these ideas coming out of this competition; All point at a perception of a ‘control crisis’. This new wave of initiatives was to be expected, there are official documents hinting at a scala of possible avenues, ranging from soft ‘nudging’ to pushing as a step down from forcing things through, by mandates, laws, fines, etc. All towards boosting vaccination-compliance.(footnote6)

So we’ve seen other earlier ideas start off as advisory to later become law, I’m not expecting these to, these are meant to merely boost some aspects of compliance and to give the public a sense sciences are open to outside input and that no stones are left unturned. And, like I ventured; to externalize the initiatives and legitimize further budgets towards these.

Some of these plans actually state outright that they mean to manipulate emotions and behavior, regardless of sensibility or facts. Others open avenues to further incentivize compliance and still others to reward Z-list-celebrities. Like I said, some of these ideas are actually okay in my eyes, like getting artists involved to quell some mental anguishes; I’m not against these, but do greatly question the total monetary-costs of this competition and all the plans it promotes..

It’s very odd..

It’s odd that only a little more than a month after declaring the winners of this competition the website seems completely scrubbed. I have found some snapshots of the pages in the ‘’, but this comp was paid for by taxpayer-money and therefore data may not be erased, by law(!) I have asked for a reply on this from both organizers and through the email I found in the archive.. I will update if I get a reaction. Suspect behavior no?


note1: About Behavioural Insights Netwerk Nederland here.

note2: About Behavior Change Group here.

note3: About the Covid Behavioural Challenge here.

note4: (deadlink: offered for reference) Winners of Covid Behavioural Challenge here.

note5: Rules Covid Behavioural Challenge here.

note6: Healthboard’s “Ethical and legal considerations of Covid-19-Vaccination” (pdf) here.

Behave Yourself

Dutch- Dragnet and Data Drama; An End to End-to-end-Encryption

Since 2018 here in these Netherlands we’ve had sweeping new law dealing with bulk collection of data, breaking into devices and sharing information with foreign powers dubbed; (the) ‘dragnet-law’ (footnote1). But powers that be would like more data, more access and less encryption(!)

satirical picture of me; “data hacker extraordinaire” (browser-hacker at best)

Meanwhile we voted against the dragnet via a referendum but as a result we only got a few legislative caveats, some minor limitations and some hollow promises. Meanwhile the same government scrapped the whole notion of referendums(!!)

A few years on now, all of our data scraped from every connection in 2018, should be wiped somewhere this year. But along the way the idea grew that insight into parts of our data was too cumbersome. End-to-end-encryption and the rising use of this technical solution, to thwart prying eyes, in popular niche messaging apps, is a ‘thorn in the eye’; a Dutch saying, to parts of our leadership.

“Wouldn’t it be nice and easy if ‘we’ could pass laws to weaken encryption or force parties to share encryption-keys?” (sarcasm)

Barring the fact our security services have tools at their disposal to monitor traffic, collect data and if need be hack devices. Having the keys to the kingdom is what some legislators would like (footnote2); having all our communication in ‘plain text’ to data-mine and analyze(!)

This would apply to popular apps like Telegram’s messenger, Facebook, Whatsapp, anything that currently forms a barrier, anything still considered somewhat private! Like I said; agencies already have tools and go-ahead to hack. This existing precedence isn’t limited to individuals either; we’ve seen the agencies here hijack Encrochat’s infrastructure last year; with purportedly ‘tens’ of currently pending criminal court cases as a result. (footnotes3,4,5)

Proving that if our security apparatus meets resistance in their hunger for data, other means are very possible! Sure, it takes more effort and no; I’m not a fan of criminality! But I do value privacy and departments of the Dutch government have displayed a lack of securing data it collects in the (not too distant) past;

This past January Dutch health-authority ‘GGD’ got in the spotlight (again) for flagrantly flaunting private data, including, but not limited to (our equivalent of) social security numbers, name, age, sex, addresses, phone numbers, current email addresses and more. Quite the leak and largely due to neglect; they had multiple early warnings of data being sold off!

Instead of monitoring who was accessing (and indeed exporting) large data-sets, or screening workers for registered offences (as was the law), the higher-ups were criminally-neglectful and are hiding behind the currently-ongoing health-scare and influx of work and subsequent influx of workers, as some sort of excuse! (footnote6)

My personal data was possibly compromised and so were millions of other Dutch citizens! Due to a hype of testing and ‘contact-tracing’ and a total lack of focus for data-security-practices. Tens of thousands of newly recruited external workers had ‘carte blanche’ and the organization didn’t attract a single new ‘data officer’ and didn’t perform any serious vulnerability assessment!

The GGD didn’t make a report to our Authority of Personal-data (Dutch: “AP: autoriteit persoonsgegevens”), an agency charged to deal with data-leaks and theft. GGD also neglected to contact people who’s data was likely compromised. Both of these actions are required by law!

I made a formal complaint to our Ministry of Justice, 2 months ago and haven’t hear a peep. I asked GGD for information on who was in the chain of command there, similarly I only received a message-receipt on my queries. I also notified the AP of my personal and general complaints. (footnote7 for reference)

This is a complete travesty! The lack of data-protection combined with the renewed calls for breaking the fundamentals of encryption from legislators has me perplexed! It’s ludicrous, it’s farcical; it’s indeed vicious!

“I will be following up on this in a separate article and renew my efforts to get those responsible up the chain to feel the consequences..”

The news I’m getting points at a perverse motivation to go after encrypted platforms and a few low-level data-sellers in the leak scandal, there is zero news of any consequences for (mis-)management; the actual data-brokers. I am working on a reconstructing a timeline on the GGD-data-leak that is startling: Early signs of data-theft and -sale from mid 2020 and security-holes acknowledged but left open from early 2020, up to reporters blowing the lid off of the case in early 2021.
(I will add a link to that here once it’s ready)

Update (March 11, 2021): even more examples of why our agencies DON’T need any change to encryption or a wider mandate; they hacked another service, ‘Sky ECC’, which denies being hacked, but still resulted in a string of arrests in the Netherlands (and Belgium). (footnote8, 9) Also it was in the news that our legislators are now actively working to limit oversight on our agencies through new legislation(!). (footnote10)


note1: Read about our existing ‘intelligence and security services’-laws here.

note2: On the push for willingly weakening encryption and/or forcing parties to share encryption keys here.

note3: On the case of ‘Enchrochat’ from 2020 here.

note4: A security bulletin on ‘Enchrochat’ from Europol, our EU focused sibling of Interpol here.

note5: A news article on ‘Enchrochat’ and resulting prosecutions here.

note6: About the Dutch GGD data leak and theft here. (more on this in an upcoming article here on KK)

note7: About our Dutch official authority for personal data ‘Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens’ here.

note8: On SkyECC being compromised and services looking in on messages here

note9: A news article on SkyECC denying the hack here

note10: An in-depth article on our oversight commissions being possibly reighned in by new legislation here

Data Drama

Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Hugo de Jonge caught lying about Compliance Numbers

Earlier this week our (Dutch) Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Deputy Prime Minister Hugo de Jonge held another presser, with bad news and some small eases of measures, but not the promised lifting of our ongoing curfew!

photo from

Here in the Netherlands we currently have the most stringent measures across Europe; Amongst them are flailing closings of schools and shops, lockdowns, once touted as ‘intelligent’ and the most recent addition; a nightly curfew!

Reasons for continuing and adding to these measures are often found in trends ‘not dropping fast enough’, so even when numbers of hospitalizations are flatlining or dropping, numbers of measured ‘infections’ are steady, we get lines like: “We are cautiously optimistic, but..”

“If we loosen measures now we expect ‘the English variant’ to cause a sharp rise” (paraphrase)

We have seen endless variation in reasons why measures, like the critically received curfew, should continue.. This week again we were explained that we need to attain measures, extending the deadlines, but this time the reason was a new one: behavioral- ‘Compliance numbers’ (for measures) that were supposedly dropping!

Now I’m always interested in data, so I decided to look for these numbers and got at them after some calls; Sad to say that in my (statistically trained-) expert eyes, the trends are anything but worrying(!) None of the monitored topics are significantly ‘dropping-out’, in fact while one is slightly lower compared to the previous poll, some others are on the rise. Here you can look at the data yourself; Compliance and Support | Dashboard coronavirus |

Here is our Deputy PM replying to a press-member and stating a bold-faced lie: Time-coded link to this weeks preconference of Rutte en De Jonge

A member of the press ask Hugo de Jonge: “Looking at the current numbers we are doing more than is justified based on infection numbers, how do you really feel about this?”

After admitting this is a political choice he charges the following: “If you look at the current compliance numbers you can see them going down ‘quite rapidly’..”

-Is he hoping we won’t look them up? Did he even look at the numbers himself?!

Go look at the stats yourself, they are provided in plotted graphs. The only subject that is seeing a small drop is our ‘one guest per household-rule’, which is a strong suggestion and not an enforceable law(!)

Besides the lie and the data; Why are we even accepting continuation of measures based on a behavioral study that polls an extremely small group of below 5000 respondents? (!)