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Big Brother Awards Germany 2013

24 April, 2013

This article is also available in:
Deutsch: Deutsche Big Brother Awards 2013

On 12 April 2013 the thirteenth German Big Brother Awards gala was held in Bielefeld, Germany. Organised by EDRi member digitalcourage, the awards featured five winners in different categories. No winners showed up to collect their award - in fact, only three BBAs have been collected since the awards started in 2000.

The Workplace award went to Apple Retail GmbH in Munich, which runs Apple Stores in Germany. The company uses blanket video surveillance in its showrooms, and has recently had a run-in with data protection authorities over the placement and size of signs informing customers about the cameras. That has now been changed, but the signs are still rather difficult to spot, with Apple's design guidelines cited as the reason. But the story goes further: according to inside sources, video and audio monitoring also extends to store rooms and even break rooms and to the spaces in front of lavatory doors. Also, the legally required collection of consent from staff is apparently conducted via a document that new employees are given as they sign their work contracts, which hardly constitutes the voluntary consent demanded by German law. Further details that question the legality of Apple Retail's monitoring are that the data seems to be processed abroad (in the UK), and stored for excessive periods of time.

A new category "Global Data Hoarding" was created for the evening's longest award speech, which "honoured" Google - not any particular violation of privacy or oppressive passage in its Terms and Conditions, but Google's ubiquitous nature and its dangerous business model. The company strives to collect as much data about its users - which means all Internet users - as it possibly can, following surfers around the net wherever they go, whether they are logged into a Google service or not. Google's main business is of course advertising, and its many other services serve to elicit more specific information about user interests in order to target these ads better. Google's stated vision to "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful" was interpreted as a "claim to power" that even extends beyond the Internet with Google Street View and the latest buzz, Google Glass. This philosophy culminates in a creepy statement by Google's Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt: "I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions ... They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next." The award's response to all of this is: "Google must be broken up." It calls on European data protection officials to close ranks on Google to reign in this global monopoly.

A funny side story to Google's award is that the organisers were unable to contact the winner and extend the customary invitation to the gala. Mail to Google's address in Hamburg was returned as undeliverable, despite Street View showing a crowd of Google employees in front of the building. Emails and faxes also failed. German consumer protection association vzbv issued a formal warning against Google a few days after the awards, deeming the company's "dead letter box" a violation of Germany's Tele-Media Act.

The winner in the Economy category was Deutsche Post Adress GmbH, a joint venture of Germany's former state postal service and Bertelsmann, a multinational mass media corporation with subsidiaries in address data services. The award was for what is probably the largest family of address databases in Germany, and the company's portfolio of services (including address-based credit scoring) and inquisitive methods of keeping its data current (using data supplied to Deutsche Post for mail redirection, delivery workers' observations, and even follow-up telephone calls).

The Government and Administration award was given to the German Federal Police (tasked with border controls and patrols on trains and railway stations, and separate from Germany's regular police forces which are organised by Federal State), for discriminatory and racist searches without any concrete suspicion. A recent court case was cited in which it was ruled on appeal that the Federal Police had violated the Constitution. This happened against a background of failures in the investigation of a right-wing terrorist group murdering immigrants over several years (where the victims' families had been wrongly placed under suspicion), discrimination in anti-terrorist operations, inquisitive questions to bi-national married couples, and last not least the winner itself taking part in a "respect" campaign that seems little more than a whitewashing gesture. This category also won the vote for the audience award, in which guests at the gala were asked which winner they found particularly outrageous.

In the Politics category, the new system for collecting the public broadcasting licence fee was recognised, with the award going to the premiers of Germany's 16 Federal States who signed the changes in an Inter-State Agreement on Media Services. The licence fee no longer depends on the presence of a receiving device, which could pave the way for a collection system that no longer depends on snooping in neighbourhoods and collecting data even beyond the information stored with German registration authorities. But that is exactly what the new Licence Fee Service does collect from several sources, including the data hoarded by the previous Fee Collection Centre which had received a Lifetime BBA in 2003. Added to this is a dubious distribution of legal responsibilities, making checks by data protection officials or inquiries by citizens about their data almost impossible.

The gala also featured an impressive and topical performance by Pit Hartling, one of Germany's leading stage magicians, a "new-speak" award for the German word "Übersichtsaufnahme" (overview recording) as a euphemism for police video surveillance at demonstrations, and an informative talk about the current state of play with the EU's Data Protection Regulation.

Big Brother Awards Germany 2013 (English coverage)

digitalcourage news item about its mail to Google being returned (only in German, 20.04.2013)

(Contribution by Sebastian Lisken, EDRi member digitalcourage)



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