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Fearing criminal use, the Netherlands suspends a communication service dedicated to inmates

The Netherlands has suspended a digital messaging service that enabled inmates to stay in touch with the outside world more easily. Authorities are concerned criminal activities can be carried out via the system.

eMates provides digital-to-print communication to inmates from the outside world
eMates provides digital-to-print communication to inmates from the outside world | © eMates

In the Netherlands, families have the possibility to communicate with inmates directly from their phones via a digital messaging service called eMates.

But the minister for Legal Protection Franc Weerwind decided that the e-mail service would be suspended from March 28. There are concerns about the security of the process and fears that criminals carry on with illegal operations directly from prison.

Minister Weerwind notified the president of the House of Representatives in a letter sent on March 24.

The Public Prosecution Service (OM) informed the Department of Correctional Institutions (DJI) it was concerned regarding the digital messaging service eMates. It is worried about how data is processed, who has access to data, and how confidentiality is ensured.

According to the OM, the supervision procedure is “under pressure” as prison personnel cannot correctly screen and monitor all messages, which some inmates take advantage of. “If the number of e-mail messages is not limited and a large number of unscreened digital messages can be sent to the outside world, as it is currently the case via eMates, there is a considerable risk of continued criminal activity within the penitentiary institution,” the OM notes.

eMates is a messaging service that has been in use in the Netherlands since 2013. It is a convenient way of communication compared to traditional methods like mail, telephone and in-person meetings. Families can use their phone to send digital messages to detainees.

Each message is up to 2,500 characters and costs 0.45 euro ($0.50). A photo attached to the message costs an additional 30 cents. The e-mail is sent to the detention supervision center which prints it, puts it in an envelope that is then given to the inmate who has no access to the Internet. Like with mail, its content can be checked for security, except for confidentiality reasons granted by law such as messages sent by lawyers.

The inmate can reply once to a message in a handwritten letter which is later scanned and sent back to the person, who will be charged another 30 cents.

According to the company, over 200,000 digital messages are sent every year across all detention centers of the Netherlands. Given the high volume of messages exchanged, detention centers can  hardly monitor everything that is being communicated.

Moreover, as the service is specifically dedicated to inmates, ownership of the company’s data could be very interesting for malicious use, according to the minister.

The decision to suspend the service is justified by the fact that there is no contractual agreement between the correctional institutions and eMates about data safety, data confidentiality and its supervision process. Authorities are reviewing the situation and have suspended eMates services in the meantime.

According to NRC, concerns started when authorities realized that dozens of messages a day were shared between Ridouan Taghi and Youssef T, his cousin who is also his lawyer. Authorities last year suspected they have been elaborating an escape plan.

Ridouan Taghi was the most-wanted criminal of the Netherlands until his arrest in Dubai in 2019. He is accused of leading one of the largest and most dangerous drug trafficking organizations of Europe. He is also suspected to have orchestrated several murders, including the assassination of Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries in July 2021 while in prison.

He is incarcerated in Extra Beveiligde Instelling (EBI), the most secure prison of the country. His intense communication with his cousin has been discovered during an investigation leading to Youssef T.’s arrest.

According to the minister’s letter, communications in and out of the EBI are all monitored.

The company filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Department of Correctional Institutions in order to cancel the suspension, according to Nos. “We work with the latest security requirements and privacy is of paramount importance,” the director of the company told the Dutch broadcaster. The company doesn’t want to stop operating while the agreements are being reviewed.

eMates is partially owned by Unilink, a British tech company dedicated to prison facility services. It also operates in the United Kingdom, Australia, Norway and North America, according to their website.

On its social handles, eMates said on Tuesday the messages would be mailed via PostNL, the national post company, to circumvent restrictions for the time being.

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