The German Big Brother Awards (BBA) gala was held on 8 June 2019 in Bielefeld, Germany. Organised annually since 2000 by EDRi member Digitalcourage, this year’s gala was the third to be streamed live in English in addition to the original German. For the second time, the venue was Bielefeld theatre, where the stage set for an operetta that had premiered the previous day was adapted for the presentation.
The award in the “Authorities and Administration” category was given to the Interior Minister of the Federal State of Hesse, Peter Beuth. After the tightening of the Hessian police laws had earned Hesse’s conservative–green coalition an award in 2018, this marked the first time that two successive awards had gone to the same governing coalition of the same Federal State. The 2019 award was given for the acquisition of a software from Palantir, a controversial US company with close links to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to analyse and interrelate data from various sources ranging from police databases to social media. The use of this software for “preventive” police work, which was given its own legal basis in a late addition to the police law of 2018, was criticised as having disastrous effects on human rights and on the rule of law. By commissioning Palantir to supply, adapt and operate the software, the US company was given access to sensitive police data on non-US citizens which they, pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), have to share with US secret service if warranted. On top of that, the software’s algorithms are a trade secret, so any “police findings” it may come up with are beyond effective scrutiny. In the speech, laudator Rolf Gössner also raised questions about the guarded manner in which Palantir’s services were commissioned.
No 2019 award was given in the traditional “Workplace” category. Jury member Peter Wedde was interviewed on stage and explained that there are still many prizeworthy issues in the workplace, but that reporting is a problem: either the media consider an individual complaint to be too small or alarm systems inside a business prevent “big” issues from being reported externally. Other problems are that workers representation is often not established in companies and violations often escape being penalised. He described details from a number of individual cases and called for improved whistleblowing protections.
An award in the “Biotechnology” category went to the largest provider of consumer DNA testing worldwide, ancestry.com. Laudator Thilo Weichert challenged claims in the company’s terms that consumers who supply DNA samples and accompanying information on themselves and their families would retain data ownership. The data protection statement grants Ancestry the right to share data with a broad range of partners, while sample suppliers are denied information on the research these partners conduct with their data. Conversely, consumers are barred by Ancestry from sharing the results of “their” analyses with others. Among the companies buying data that consumers supply to Ancestry are large pharmaceuticals such as GlaxoSmithKline. Ancestry was criticised for not informing its customers about other risks such as becoming the focus of police searches for suspects using DNA data, or possible family disruptions and psychological consequences, and for ignoring German legal requirements on warning about such consequences, on information disclosure as well as data protection.
The winner in the “Communication” category was Precire Technologies (formerly called Psyware) of Aachen, Germany. This company offers artifical intelligence (AI) based analysis of speech including recorded phone conversations, from which it claims to be able to derive psychological profiles. One service offered by Precire is pre-selection of job applicants by encouraging them to take part in computer-led, seemingly innocuous phone conversations. In her award speech, laudator Rena Tangens expressed doubt on the validity of such judgements, pointing to contradictions in the company’s arguments (for example that speech patterns are likened to immutable finger prints, whereas Precire also offers a speech training app), and criticised that Precire refuses to publish its own studies on its technologies, while publicly available studies are only based on data provided by the company itself. People who are not looking for jobs can still be exposed to the company’s technology when their phone calls are handled by call centres, where the software advises agents on how to treat a case based on an analysis of the caller’s emotions.
The ”Technology” award went to the “Technical Committee CYBER” of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) for its efforts to establish an alternative to the newest version of the internet encryption standard “Transport Layer Security” (TLS 1.3) under the name “Enterprise Transport Security” (ETS, formerly eTLS). Laudator Frank Rosengart described this standard as clearly being designed in the interests of government and secret service surveillance as it includes key escrow, a process where “backdoor” keys are retained and possibly handed over to investigators. Anyone obtaining such keys would be able to decrypt all future communications with an online service. Users, on the other hand, will have little opportunity to detect that this weaker encryption is being used or to prevent it. The standard was created despite warnings by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and other experts.
A much-debated award in the “Consumer Protection” category was given to a leading German news website, Zeit Online, for the use of tracking in its website, for the previous use of Google online services to store personal data including details on political opinions about users of an award-winning project called “Germany Talks”, and for accepting Google sponsorship for the international successor project, “My Country Talks”. Laudator padeluun explained that he has been friends with the paper’s online editor-in-chief, Jochen Wegner, for many years. He praised Zeit’s journalism as well as the project “Germany Talks”, which brought people of conflicting political opinions together for personal conversations. Despite the good intentions, the speech explained, the project had in its implementation phase succumbed to the temptation of using Google’s Cloud Office to handle registrations, and Zeit had also used these services for collaborative work on other journalistic investigations. The award speech called on Zeit Online to realise the consequences of mass surveillance that it had extensively reported on after the Snowden revelations, and to consequently expand its own IT base and look for alternatives to using online tracking as a source of revenue for its online services. Four days before the gala, Jochen Wegner had made the award public in a response on Zeit’s editorial blog “Glashaus”. Digitalcourage made clear that this course of action did not constitute a breach of its journalistic embargo – Zeit had been notified as BBA awardees and like all such “winners” they were free to react. Zeit’s response acknowledged some of the critique in the award speech while refuting other aspects. Jochen Wegner also visited the gala and accepted the award in person, using the customary opportunity to voice his opinion in an on-stage interview. His appearance was acknowledged with long and respectful applause. The Big Brother Awards organisers and Zeit Online are looking to continue the conversation and hopefully reach tangible conclusions.
Full English information on the 2019 awards can be found at https://bigbrotherawards.de/en/2019 – a recording of the English live stream is due to be added soon.
BBA Germany 2018: Spying on employees, refugees, citizens… (16.05.2018)
BBA Germany 2017: Espionage, threats, tracking, provoking cyber wars (17.05.2017)
Big Brother Awards Germany 2016 (18.05.2016)
Big Brother Awards Germany 2015 (22.04.2015)
Big Brother Awards Germany 2014 (24.04.2014)
Big Brother Awards Germany 2013 (24.04.2013)
Big Brother Awards Germany 2012 (25.04.2012)
Big Brother Awards Germany 2008 (05.11.2008)
(Contribution by Sebastian Lisken, EDRi member Digitalcourage)