Privacy International (PI) has announced the shortlist of candidates for this year's Big Brother awards, its annual naming and shaming of the companies and organisations that it claims pose the greatest threat to privacy and civil liberties in the UK.
This shortlist has been compiled from nominations from the public. Five awards are up for grabs and, as in previous years, government ministers and officials are in the running for several prizes. More unusually, a US security measure has also been nominated.
The early favourite to win the award for Worst Public Servant is Margaret Hodge MP, Minister of State for Children, for "her patronage of the controversial tracking provisions in the Children Bill, and for her determination to develop a wide spectrum of intrusive databases and information systems".
Hodge is up against two Home Office officials -- Katherine Courtney, director of the Identity Cards Programme, and Stephen Harrison, head of the Identity Card Policy Unit. PI says they are the "largely invisible figures behind the National Identity Card scheme and have steered the project since its inception in 2002".
Vodafone is in with a chance of winning the award for Most Appalling Project, for introducing content filtering that PI says amounts to the "systematic default blocking of all 'adult' websites".
The other candidates for this award are the Safe Harbor Agreement, which governs how US companies should handle the personal data of EU citizens, and the NHS National Programme for IT -- which won a Big Brother award back in 2000. PI believes that Safe Harbor could be used to circumvent EU privacy law, and is very concerned that the NHS IT project -- an early favourite -- will computerise all patient records in a way that is "both insecure and dangerous to patient privacy".
The Office of National Statistics is the front-runner for the title of Most Heinous Government Organisation for its citizen information project, which will collate information on the UK population.
The Department of Transport is in with a shout, though, for its work on the electronic vehicle identification (EVI) scheme, under which cars will be fitted with an electronic chip that would report traffic offences to the authorities.
The award for Most Invasive Company is between British Gas, the early favourite, for its claim that the deaths of two elderly customers was due to the Data Protection Act, which it said prevented it informing the authorities that their gas had been terminated; FOllowUS, a mobile phone tracking firm; and Lloyds TSB, for, in the PI's words, making "unnecessary and possibly unlawful threats" to freeze the accounts of customers who refuse to attend a branch and produce identity documents.
Possibly the most eagerly awaited Big Brother award each year is that of Lifetime Menace. This year this is a two-horse race between Charles Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and the US VISIT programme.
Clarke is a long-time bogey man for privacy advocates, following his work on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act back in 2000. According to PI, Clarke's work as a cabinet minister, in which he oversees Margaret Hodge's portfolio for children, poses "an ongoing threat to privacy".
US VISIT is a range of security measures being brought in by the US government. It will force visitors to America to have their fingerprints recorded. The US government says that the scheme "enhances the security of US citizens and visitors by verifying the identity of visitors with visas. At the same time, it facilitates legitimate travel and trade by leveraging technology and the evolving use of biometrics to expedite processing at our borders."
But PI says it is "offensive and invasive", and accuses the British government of capitulating over the issue.
PI chose to ignore nominations for David Blunkett, the Home Office, and the National Identification Card. All three polled highly, but have already won in previous years.
The winners will be announced at an event on 28 July at the London School of Economics. Each (should they attend) will receive a gold statue of a boot stamping on a human head -- an image from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, from which the Big Brother title is also taken.
This event is open to the public, who can register to attend by emailing UKBBA@privacy.org.