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Big Brother Awards highlight digital privacy threats

Government plans to store all Internet traffic in a single warehouse featured highly in the Big Brother Awards in London last night
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor

A proposal by the National Criminal Intelligence Service to store all UK Internet traffic for seven years in a single data warehouse won the Big Brother Award for Most Appalling Project on Monday night.

Interception of communications was high on the agenda at the event, which has hosted by comic and investigative journalist Mark Thomas, and Simon Davies of Privacy International.

Noting that this year's awards, represented by a boot stamping on a decapitated head, were slightly smaller than in previous years, Thomas said: "Yes, we've gone from the jack boot of tyranny to more of a Chris Smith New Labour rambling look."

The Big Brother Awards are presented annually by Privacy International to the companies and individuals that have done most to erode the privacy of the citizen, and are accompanied by the "Winstons", which are awarded to those who have done most to protect privacy.

MEP Ilka Schroder, who won a Winston for her work on the European Commission committee looking into the Echelon spy network, as well as for fighting against data retention proposals that would see all email, fax, phone and Web traffic stored for seven years, said the issue is incredibly important. "One of biggest threats to privacy is the interception of any type of material you can imagine," she said, collecting her award. "The (governments') solution to their problem seems to be to store all communications data on a huge storage device. Data retention is the single biggest threat (to privacy)."

The NCIS warehousing proposal beat into second place the Electoral Reform Society which was nominated for its patronage of a report by the Independent Commission on alternative voting methods which, said the judges, provides a "woefully scant assessment of the substantial privacy and security threats arising from electronic voting".

Alongside the NCIS as winners of Big Brother Awards were the Norwich Union, which won the Most Invasive Company award for using unapproved genetic tests for potentially fatal diseases when assessing whether to offer life insurance cover to people. The Norwich Union was the only Big Brother winner to have a representative present to collect its award.

Most heinous government organisation was the Department of Education and Skills, for removing anonymity in the 2002 national schools census and for creating a student tracking system.

Worst public servant was Sir Richard Wilson. The judges said he had earned his nominations for "his long standing commitment to opposing freedom of information, data protection and ministerial accountability."

And the Lifetime menace award went to the national ID and data sharing scheme proposals for a comprehensive data sharing scheme between government agencies and the private sector. These proposals have, said the judges, become a fixed component of government thinking in recent years. "These proposals, whether they are marketed as a national ID card or an entitlement card, constitute the greatest ongoing threat to privacy".

The judges added that it was difficult to give an award to a mere proposal.

Who's watching you? Get the latest on spy networks such as Echelon and Carnivore, as well as privacy issues for companies and individuals alike, at ZDNet UK's Privacy News Section.

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