Who’s playing fast and loose with your data? The Big Brother Awards, billed as the “Oscars for data leeches” by the hackers and privacy advocates who hand out the prizes, shine a high-intensity spotlight on companies and individuals with poor privacy track records. Since 1998, Privacy International and a host of affiliated organizations have singled out the worst privacy violators in various countries including the UK, Austria, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, Japan, New Zealand and the U.S. The title evokes the totalitarian cult personality featured in George Orwell’s 1984, set in a dystopic world of mass surveillance.
In Germany, privacy advocates held their annual edition of the Big Brother Awards in April. The panel of judges was made up of representatives from privacy advocate FoeBuD and other organizations campaigning for data protection and human rights. Curious to know who made Germany’s list of privacy offenders? Here’s the rundown.
Markus Ulbig, Saxon Minister of the Interior
Markus Ulbig, Saxon Minister of the Interior, snagged a Big Brother Award in the category “Government and Administration” for presiding over a veritable data tsunami that swept up mobile phone data belonging to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens. Police filed data requests with cell phone service providers for connection logs over a 12-hour period in Dresden, resulting in the staggering release of more than a million phone records associated with some 55,000 identified subscribers. The requests were filed in the wake of a February 2011 mass demonstration against a Dresden Nazi parade. The police were targeting the anti-Nazi protesters.
“The Cloud” won a Big Brother Award in the communication category, with the panel of judges characterizing it as “a trend that deprives users of control over their own data.” Almost all cloud storage providers are American companies, they point out, and are therefore obliged by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to allow US authorities access to all data, even if the server farms are situated on European soil. EFF hit on this point when we mentioned that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) “seems to be trying to placate international concern by saying one thing in international fora; but something quite different in the US courts … The DOJ’s position in its court filings is that very little, if any, privacy protection is available against US government access to the records of users of US-based cloud computing services.”
Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.
In the consumer protection category, video game company Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. won a Big Brother Award for a change of terms that raised a host of privacy concerns, including a scan of the computer’s working memory to prevent cheating, chat recording that captures text communications, game recording and player rankings that reveal how often and how long players have been playing. “Our reason to give today’s Big Brother Award is the full interaction between numerous components, under the label ‘Real ID,’” the judges noted.
Dr. Hans-Peter Friedrich, Federal Minister of the Interior
In the “Politics” category, Dr. Hans-Peter Friedrich, Interior Minister in the German federal government, became a Big Brother Award recipient for spearheading joint security projects judges described as violations of the constitutional principle of separating the police, intelligence services and military. The projects created a “national cyber-defense center” and a defense center against right-wing extremism – both of which were established without consulting the Parliament. These security initiatives “cause police, secret services and the military to be networked and integrated in a troublesome way,” the judges wrote. “This is a violation of the German constitution’s historically rooted imperative that these security authorities must work independently and in strict separation.”
Gamma International & FinFisher
In this day and age, what technology is most deserving of a Big Brother Award? Judges settled on surveillance software produced by Gamma International subsidiary FinFisher, which made headlines last year following revelations that it had been deployed under Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. One of the most controversial investigation tools marketed by FinFisher “enables government agencies to search [a personal computer’s] contents remotely and covertly, snoop through e-mails, or record passwords. Even the computer’s microphone and web cam can be activated for surveillance,” noted the Big Brother Award announcement. EFF spotlighted Gamma International as part of a profile of spy tech companies and their authoritarian customers.
German-based frozen foods manufacturer Bofrost earned a Big Brother Award in the “workplace” category for accessing a file on a computer belonging to the Bofrost staff council (in Germany, staff councils are “shop-floor” organizations representing employees in labor negotiations). On another staff council computer, Bofrost installed Ultra VNC – a kind of software that allows a user to display the screen of another computer on his or her own screen – without the staff council’s consent. The workplace espionage was carried out in connection with industrial law court cases, which Bofrost initiated and ultimately lost.
In the “Economy” category, water filtration company Brita GmbH was singled out for marketing water vending machines for schools that dispense water only when a student taps them with a bottle containing an RFID chip. Judges were extremely critical of the practice. They wrote, “This water bottle system is a glaring example of the industry’s attempts to establish a culture of overtechnisation, surveillance and blatant paternalism from early childhood.”