On 17 April 2015, EDRi member Digitalcourage held its annual Big Brother Awards gala in Bielefeld, Germany. Just two days earlier, politicians in Berlin had provided a very poignant context when the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas’ “grand coalition” had published “guidelines” for a draft bill to reintroduce telecommunications data retention in Germany.
At the gala itself, the plans for telecommunications data retention could not be reflected in one of the “core” awards, as these had been based on nominations received over the previous year. However, the “Newspeak” award for shifts in terminology covered the latest attempt to push ahead mass surveillance of communications data, as the Justice and Interior Ministers had “garnished” their new proposals with yet another new euphemistic term.
The award in the “Technology” category was given to the “Hello Barbie” doll and its makers Mattel and Toytalk (a new company specialising in language recognition for children). The doll comes with a microphone, speaker and Wi-Fi capability. It records conversations at the push of a button and sends the recordings to “the cloud”, where they are processed and stored – primarily to produce meaningful responses in subsequent conversations. This means that children are made to disclose their concerns to a server farm, and parents are let into their children’s secrets by means of a daily or weekly protocol that Mattel will send them via email.
The “Authorities and Administration” award went to Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), for its entanglement with the US National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) surveillance network, for its surveillance activities of cross-border communications, for sharing vast amounts of constitutionally protected data with foreign partner agencies, and for obstructing the work of the German Parliament’s commission of inquiry which was set up after the Snowden revelations. However, the BND’s budget and competences are set to be given a further boost, as there are plans to increase its budget by 300 million Euros and give it further surveillance tasks, such as monitoring social networks.
The “Business” award went to two “crowdworking” or “crowdsourcing” platforms, Amazon Mechanical Turk and Elance-oDesk. These platforms parcel out work commissions submitted by clients to registered workers. The laudation detailed how these platforms try to portray the work model they create in a false sense of freedom, while any actual freedom is mainly in the sense of being “set free“: It’s low-paid work at short notice, with no reliability or (social) security. As a “bonus”, Elance-oDesk workers are being put under intrusive surveillance. Moreover, a frequent use of Amazon Mechanical Turk’s “workforce” is to add manipulated content in Internet forums, product reviews etc.
Amazon was pinpointed a second time in the “Workplace” category, this time for the way they treat their own employees in their German distribution centres. At least two Amazon subsidiaries in Germany ask their workers to sign declarations of consent that allow Amazon to store and process personal data, including health data. Also, storage and processing takes place in the US, but the declaration does not contain any information on how European data protection standards might be followed. These rules clearly break the limits set by German privacy and industrial legislation as well as the constitutionally protected principle of patient–physician confidentiality.
The “Consumer Protection” award was centred on Germany’s electronic health card. This project was given a Big Brother Award already in 2004, but the health card was only introduced in 2014, and it was time to take a broader view on the implementing “electronic health act” and the underlying developments. Digital data processing is getting more and more widely used in the health sector, and in the process, principles of medical secrecy are quietly undermined, and health budgets are being shifted from the actual provision of public health to private companies that provide electronic infrastructure or own hospital chains or pharmaceutical companies.
In the “Politics” category, the current German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and his predecessor Hans-Peter Friedrich were jointly awarded for systematically and fundamentally sabotaging the EU’s planned General Data Protection Regulation. The award speech was given by Austrian jury guest Max Schrems (known for his “Europe vs Facebook” lawsuit). His speech also raised the issue of entanglement between German ministry officials involved in the negotiations with industry lobbyists, quoting extracts from emails that point to a scandalous level of collusion between the two parties.
The Audience Award, in which the gala’s guests were asked to vote on which of the “winners” they found especially “impressive, surprising, shocking, or outrageous”, was won by the “Politics” award, slightly ahead of a fairly evenly placed “field” of almost all the other categories.
BigBrotherAwards 2015 “winners” (in English, full translations of the award speeches)
BigBrotherAwards 2015 media reactions (only in German)
EDRi-gram: In Germany, data retention refuses to die (25.03.2015)
(Contribution by Sebastian Lisken, EDRi member Digitalcourage, Germany)