Intelligence agencies are good at good at gathering information — it's the reason they exist. However, when the focus shifts to information about them, they tend to dislike prying eyes and ears. Intelligence agencies gather, they don't share.
Such an attitude has been demonstrated countless times in recent years, ever since Edward Snowden sounded the privacy alarm. The NSA, for instance, was not known for being overly forthcoming, usually only offering statements to the press that were variations on a theme: "The NSA uses its technical capabilities only to support lawful and appropriate foreign intelligence operations, all of which must be carried out in strict accordance with its authorities," and so on.
The different Dutch
The 'gather, don't share' attitude is not unique to the NSA — it's how most intelligence agencies across the globe handle their PR.
Not so in the Netherlands, the country that, until recently, claimed it had no problem with piracy (and also the country where soft drugs and prostitution are completely legal). Yes, the Dutch do things a little differently, and apparently, that includes how the country's intelligence agency operates.
On Wednesday, the Dutch AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Service) announced that it was holding an 'ask me anything' style session on Twitter, to answer any queries Dutch citizens might have about security, privacy, or other related matters. A brave move, since the PR disaster suffered by the NYPD yesterday painfully demonstrated how even good social media intentions can come back to bite you.
The humour in surveillance
During the AIVD's one-hour Twitter chat session, Dutch users asked a lot of serious questions, including how a person can find out if they've been the subject of an investigation ("insight into this information can be requested", the AIVD said), and what would the AIVD advise citizens to do with regard protecting their privacy ("be careful what you share and with whom").
Nothing spectacular there, perhaps. However, the fun started when the Dutch intelligence agency demonstrated a sense of humour, replying to silly questions with equally silly answers.
One Twitter user dared the ask the AVID how many fingers he was holding up, to which the intelligence agency rather drily replied: "As long as it's not the middle one, we don't care." And when another user, encouraged by the response, decided to share the PIN of his debit card with the intelligence agency, it replied: "Don't worry, we're good at keeping secrets." When asked about its favourite state secret, the AIVD shot back: "Can't tell, that's a state secret."
The most brilliant tweet, however, must be the intelligence agency's response to a Twitter user who asked for tips on what numbers to pick for the next lottery draw, prompting the reply: "We always tend to go with 007."
Not everybody amused
While tweeps and media outlets alike enjoyed the AVID's unexpected sense of humour, not everyone was so amused by the agency's Twitter chat. Some Twitter users felt that the organisation had resorted to humour to avoid having to answer difficult questions (of which, unfortunately, hardly any were asked) or took the stance that 'the AIVD is not getting paid to be funny'.
Granted, the Dutch people don't know much more about how the country's intelligence agency deals with their privacy than they did a day earlier, but as far as we're concerned, if you're going to share nothing, you might as well share nothing with humour.