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Ashcroft, Ellison win ‘Big Brother’ awards

Electronic privacy advocates honor foes

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Last December, US Attorney General John Ashcroft, testifying at a Senate hearing, accused privacy advocates and civil libertarians of aiding terrorists by scaring "peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty."

On Thursday, a large US gathering of those critics responded in their own way: by giving Ashcroft the "Worst Government Official" nod at the annual Big Brother Awards.

"I take this nomination seriously, because it's been 20 or 30 years since I've been called treasonous," said ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt, announcing Ashcroft's win before a friendly audience of cypherpunks, civil libertarians and electronic privacy fans at the 12th annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in San Francisco.

Privacy International, a London-based non-profit advocacy group, hands out the awards each year to honor people and organizations that have done the most to harm personal privacy in the US, in the judgment of a ten-person panel drawn from a various privacy groups. David Banisar, Privacy International's US director, acted as master of ceremonies at the tongue-in-cheek award show.

In addition to charging administration critics with helping terror, Ashcroft was picked out for the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, and for the increased domestic surveillance and immigration sweeps that followed the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

Like many of the heated panel discussions and debates at the four-day conference, government and private industry's response to terrorism drove the event.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison won "Worst Corporate Invader" for his vocal advocacy of a national identification card backed by Oracle database software. A proposal to pre-screen airline passengers by tying together credit reporting systems and purchase histories won "Most Heinous Project." Iran-Contra conspirator John Poindexter was given the "Lifetime Menace Award." Poindexter heads DARPA's new Information Awareness Office, created in January to develop data mining technology.

Not-surprisingly, none of the award recipients were present to accept their trophies -- gold-colored statuettes depicting a human head being crushed under a jackboot.

Privacy International also gave out two serious, pro-privacy Brandeis Awards, named for the Supreme Court Justice who wrote that privacy is "the right to be left alone." One Brandeis went to California senator Jackie Speier for spearheading financial privacy legislation. The second went to Warren Leech, a private citizen who played a driving role in consumers winning the right to examine, and correct errors in, their credit reports.

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