Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
The first US ‘Big Brother’ awards took place on 7 April 1999, in the plush surroundings of the Ambassador Ballroom of Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, during the 9th Computers Freedom & Privacy Conference. Around 500 people, ranging from grassroots activists to corporate executives, attended the event.
The aim of the night was to recognise the organisations and individuals who had made a contribution to the destruction of privacy. Awards were also given to individuals and organisations which have made an outstanding contribution to the protection of privacy, as well as to people who have been victims of privacy invasion, and who have successfully fought back. An ‘Orwell’ — a gold statuette of a boot stamping on a human head — was given (usually in absentia) to each winner.
The US judging panel, consisting of lawyers, academics, consultants, journalists and civil rights activists, invited nominations from members of the public.
Awards were bestowed in ‘Oscar’ style, with guest presenters reading out nominations, accompanied by an audio visual display, drum rolls, fanfares and Star Wars music. The crowd was jovial and enthusiastic, often responding to the announcements with prolonged cheering and/or boo-ing.
The Washington event took place on the 50th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty Four.
Privacy International previously held a Big Brother ceremony in London, England in October 1998. Awards were given in the UK to the NSA’s spybase in northern England, the Department of Trade and Industry’s key escrow plan, the township of Newham for its camera system with facial recognition, Harlequin Ltd for its WatCall software system to track phone calls, and to Procurement Services International for exporting surveillance equipment to such military regimes as Indonesia and Nigeria.
In Washington, Microsoft earned the ‘People’s Choice’ award after it was revealed last month that users of Windows 98 unwittingly transmitted a unique identifier when they registered copies of the operating system. More than 60 per cent of public nominations went to the company.
Other Orwells went to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp for its controversial scheme for thwarting money laundering called ‘Know Your Customer’. Banks were supposed to closely monitor accounts and report any unusual activity to the Feds. But the proposal drew such an overwhelmingly negative response that FDIC Chairman Donna Tanoue retreated on 23 March, after receiving more than 250,000 emails, letters, and postcards. ‘Virtually all of them said, “I don’t want anyone prying into my personal financial affairs, regardless of the reason”,’ she admitted at the time.
Reporting on the Big Brother event, Business Week observed:
An upset of sorts was scored in the ‘greatest corporate invader’ category. The Big Brother judges passed up Intel, even though the storm surrounding unique serial numbers in the company’s Pentium III chip had privacy advocates calling for a companywide boycott. Instead, the Orwell went to a relatively unknown Massachusetts compiler of pharmacy data named Elensys, which had a contract with Giant Foods and CVS to send reminders to consumers who needed to refill prescriptions. However, consumers were alarmed that their prescription records were being shared and raised a stink that left all the parties scrambling for cover (perhaps Giant and CVS could have gotten best supporting actor awards).
Republican Representative Bill McCollum of Florida (who, among other things, has supported national ID cards) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were other Big Brother ‘honorees.’ New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Direct Marketing Association and Trans Union, a credit reporting giant, were among the people and organisations that were nominated for Orwells but didn’t prevail.
The ‘positive’ award winners received ‘Brandeis’ awards (named after Judge Louis Brandeis, who defined privacy in US law). Phil Zimmermann, creator of the popular magnum-caliber encryption program called PGP (for Pretty Good Privacy), received one of two awards issued during the evening.
But — again quoting from Business Week — in some ways, it was the other Brandeis winner, a West Virginia housewife named Diana Mey, who made the biggest impression at the ceremony. A mother of three and part-time West Liberty State College student, Mey proved that individual citizens can stand up for their privacy rights.
Like so many people, Mey deeply resented the fusillade of intrusive phone calls from marketers that came just as the family sat down to dinner. In search of a remedy, she prowled the internet and found a 1991 law called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. It provides that if a company repeatedly calls after you ask it to stop, you can take it to Small Claims Court. Mey asked a company called American Home Improvement Products Inc to take a hike, but she says it kept calling anyway. So, she gathered evidence by tape-recording calls from the telemarketer, a legal practice in her state.
Nonetheless, American Home Improvement objected and countersued on wiretap charges. The company said it wanted $10,000 plus punitive damages. Mey fretted that she could lose her house, but she didn’t give in. ‘We must face the fact that we might be confronted, as I was, with the legal staff and savvy of the nation’s largest law firms,’ she told the audience. ‘But as Americans, we must stand up for our right to be left alone in our most sacred personal space, our home.’ She won the case in an out of court settlement.
Simon Davies is the London-based Director-General of Privacy International. The Big Brother Awards site is at http://www.bigbrotherawards.org/ and contains details of the UK awards. It says ‘Award ceremonies are also planned for Canada, France, Australia, the Netherlands and Austria’. (General Editor).