Home & Office

Big Brother Awards nominees plumb new depths

The annual award ceremony to recognise the biggest threats to privacy throws up some predictable names, and a few outsiders
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor

The nominees for this year's Big Brother Awards, which recognise villains of privacy in the Internet age, have sunk to new depths, according to the judges.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, the founding organisation, said that during the judging process, it became clear that government agencies and companies have "stooped to an all-time low" in the willful violation of privacy.

"We have been almost overwhelmed this year by a flood of new entries, many of which involve technologies and techniques that are beyond the control of law, and outside the comprehension of policy makers."

The nominees include many old favourite Internet villains, but there are also some surprising outsiders among them.

Three entries appear to have excelled in their efforts to damage the individual's right to privacy. The chief secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Richard Wilson, is nominated for Worst Public Servant and Lifetime Menace. The Internet Watch Foundation has joint nominations for Most Invasive Company and for Most Heinous Government Organisation. And the home secretary, David Blunkett, drew a nomination for Worst Public Servant while the department he heads, the Home Office, is up for Most Heinous Government Organisation.

Sir Richard Wilson earned his nominations, said the judges, for "his long-standing commitment to opposing freedom of information, data protection and ministerial accountability." David Blunkett earned nominations for himself and his department for an "astonishing and multi-skilled disregard for privacy and for his patronage of the proposed national ID card," said the judges. But the two are not alone. In their nominations for Worst Public Servant, they are joined by Euro MP Michael Cashman for his "unrelenting opposition in the European Parliament to controls over email spam."

In the Most Invasive Company and Most Heinous Government Organisation category, meanwhile, the IWF will give the Home Office stiff competition for "actions which (the) judges regarded as unnecessary, disproportionate and hostile to the rights of Internet users."

The Internet Watch Foundation earned its nominations for events that led, in early February, to the loss of the only civil liberties activist from its board of directors. Malcolm Hutty, regarded as a moderate in the civil liberties community, said he resigned because the IWF is "not prepared to listen to criticism."

Clive Feather, an ISP representative, resigned in December citing similar complaints. Explaining his resignation, Hutty criticised the IWF for forcing key decisions through with no debate. Specifically, the IWF was criticised for introducing a policy to censor newsgroups on the basis of the newsgroup name alone, regardless of content.

The IWF is joined in the nominations for Most Invasive Company by one insurance company and one unlikely entrant from another field altogether.

Norwich Union is nominated for using unapproved genetic tests for potentially fatal diseases when assessing whether to offer life cover to people. But the outsider is the Countryside Alliance, a group representing rural interests in the UK that has been very vocal in the fox-hunting debate.

The Countryside Alliance won a nomination because, although it has registered itself with the Information Commissioner as all organisations are required to do under the Data Protection Act 1998 if they are processing or holding any personal data, it appears to have gone further than most. The CA registration on the Information Commissioner's site runs to 27 pages, and reveals that the organisation holds (among other categories) sexual, political, religious, health, intelligence and lifestyle information on a vast range of individuals.

Two nominations are given for the category of Most Invasive Project. The Electoral Reform Society is nominated for its patronage of a report by the Independent Commission on alternative voting methods, said the judges. "The report provides a woefully scant assessment of the substantial privacy and security threats arising from electronic voting."

The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) was nominated for the same award for its 2001 proposal to archive and warehouse all email, Internet and telephone call traffic records for the entire population.

Finally, the Home Office and the IWF are joined in the nominations for Most Heinous Government Organisation by the Department of Education and Skills for removing anonymity in the 2002 national schools census and for creating a student tracking system.

And Sir Richard Wilson will be seeing competition for Lifetime Menace from the national identification and data sharing scheme proposals for comprehensive data sharing 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."

Privacy International was founded in 1990 and campaigns on a wide range of privacy issues across the world. The winners of the Big Brother Awards will be announced at a ceremony at the London School of Economics on 4 March.

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.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Go to the ZDNet news forum.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.

Editorial standards