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US wins David Blunkett Lifetime Menace Award

VISIT program honoured

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Big Brother awards 2004 The UK's sixth annual Big Brother awards last night honoured outstanding achievement by those individuals and organisations who make your business their business, and generally interfere with, snoop on, aggravate and irritate the public with their activities.

Laurels were bestowed to recipients in five categories: Worst Public Servant, Most Invasive Company, Most Appalling Project, Most Heinous Government Organisation and Lifetime Menace Award - now renamed the David Blunkett Lifetime Menace Award. Human rights watchdog Privacy International, which organises the awards, said it was overwhelmed by nominations for Blunkett, the Home Office and national ID cards but since each had been recognised in previous years different candidates were considered instead.

And the winners are...

WORST PUBLIC SERVANT: The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Minister of State for Children

Margaret Hodge has received numerous nominations because of 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. Event host Mark Thomas joked that Hodge wasn't available to collect the award because she was at home "tattooing her children". Runner-up in the "Worst Public Servant" category were joint nominees Katherine Courtney, director of Home Office's identity cards programme and Stephen Harrison, head of the identity card policy unit at the Home Office. PI described the duo as the "largely invisible figures behind the National Identity Card scheme and have steered the project since its inception in 2002. They were, of course, just following orders". Home Affairs Committee minutes on their activities can be found here and here.

MOST INVASIVE COMPANY: British Gas

The utility earned its gong for its "unfounded and cowardly claim that the Data Protection Act was the reason why an elderly couple died after British Gas had disconnected their gas supply". British Gas edged out Lloyds TSB and mobile phone tracking outfit FollowUS in the closely-contested category. Lloyds TSB was nominated for its "unnecessary and possibly unlawful threats to freeze the accounts of customers who fail to attend a branch and produce identity documents", a procedure described by the bank as an "initiative" backed by the Financial Services Authority. FollowUS earned a nomination for marketing mobile phone tracking services that can be used to locate people "for peace of mind, security or fun".

MOST APPALLING PROJECT: The NHS National Programme for IT

The NHS won a "Most Heinous Government Organisation" award in 2000 because of its plans to computerise all patient records in a way that is both insecure and dangerous to patient privacy. Its 'victory' this year reflects the gravity of concerns over these continuing plans. Other nominees were Vodafone, for its systematic default blocking of all "adult" websites, and the Safe Harbor Agreement. This initiative, drawn up by the EU and the US, provides a basis for the transmission to the US of personal information on EU citizens. PI comments: "At best the scheme can be described as inadequate. At worst it is a means of circumventing European privacy law and fooling people into a belief that their information is being protected within the US border."

MOST HEINOUS GOVERNMENT ORGANISATION: The Office of National Statistics

The Office of National Statistics earned the ire of judges for its development of the "Citizen Information Project" that will collate and share unprecedented amounts of data on the entire population. Runner-up in the category was the Department for Transport which caught the judges' eyes thanks to its electronic vehicle identification (EVI) programme, otherwise known as the "Spy in the Dashboard". The scheme involves an embedded chip will automatically report to authorities a wide range of offences including speeding, road tax evasion and illegal parking.

LIFETIME MENACE: The US VISIT Programme

Privacy International took the unusual step of shortlisting a US initiative for the UK awards because of the "almost total silence on the US over this programme". US VISIT will fingerprint all visitors to the US from September of this year. "The scheme is offensive and invasive, and has been undertaken with little or no debate or scrutiny. The UK government has been silent about the programme and has capitulated every step of the way," PI comments. US VISIT edged out The Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP for last night's most high profile award. Charles Clarke backed the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill as a Home Office Minister. Now as Secretary of State for Education & Skills he has responsibility for the Children portfolio occupied by Margaret Hodge (see nomination above). "His activities at Cabinet level pose an ongoing threat to privacy," the judges said.

Each of the "winners" received a gold award - a statue in the shape of a boot stamping on a human head, an image derived for George Orwell's classic novel 1984.

Commenting on the awards, Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International, said: "The winning nominations reflect a broad and intensified assault on the right to privacy in the UK. There is a clear hostility within government to privacy and a general antagonism to it from within business. We have seen few instances where privacy has been genuinely respected by large organisations."

"Almost all large government projects attempt to compromise the right to privacy. The proclaimed need for protection of children and the fight against terrorism has often been shamelessly used as the pretext for privacy invasion. We are seeing a race to the bottom where government and private sector alike compete to provide the most intrusive services in the most unstable environment for privacy," he added.

PI said the European Commission has "adopted a key role in leading the assault on privacy", prompting consideration of a EU-wide Big Brother Award.

Since their inception in 1998, the Big Brother Awards are now held as an annual event in seventeen countries (including the US, France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland). The UK event will be the 41st Big Brother Award ceremony. A panel of experts consisting of lawyers, academics, consultants, journalists and civil rights activists judged the 2004 awards.

Privacy International is engaged in numerous initiatives, including a comprehensive study of anti-terrorism policy developments worldwide that will be published in September. On a more upbeat note, yesterday's award night marked the launch of Privacy International's new website. ®

Bootnote

Readers with a particular aversion to the Dave Blunkett's volunatry/compulsory ID card scheme will be delighted to learn that Reg e-commerce tentacle Cash'n'Carrion is now carrying the campaigning NO2ID t-shirt, fighting the good fight on behalf of www.no2id.net. You can have a snoop here.

Related stories

Shortlist for privacy 'Oscars' announced
Uncle Sam fingerprints visitors
What's the point of NHS IT? No one knows
Vodafone's adult filter is go
ID cards: a guide for technically-challenged PMs
Blunkett states ID card aims but can he achieve them?
Big Brother nominated for Google Award
World's most stupid security measures named and shamed
2003 Big Brother Awards: The Winners

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