BBA Germany 2017: Espionage, threats, tracking, provoking cyber wars

By EDRi · May 17, 2017

The annual German Big Brother Awards were bestowed by EDRi member Digitalcourage on 5 May 2017 in Bielefeld, Germany. The event drew much media attention, as one of the awardees threatened the organiser with legal action.

The awardees are informed of their awards a few days in advance and invited to respond or appear at the gala. In a response to their notification, the awardee in the “Politics” category threatened to sue Digitalcourage for libel. When a local paper heard of this threat and managed to obtain off-the-record confirmation of the awardee’s identity, it decided to break the press embargo requested by Digitalcourage and reported about the issue. This caused other media outlets to follow suit. Digitalcourage issued a statement that they would not be perturbed by such intimidation. At the time of writing this article, they have not heard of any actual legal action.

The awardee in the “Politics” category was the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB). Imams at DİTİB – with ties to the Turkish government and its secret service MİT – are said to have conducted political espionage on DİTİB members and visitors, exposing them to persecution by the Turkish state. According to a December 2016 newspaper report, a call had been issued by the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to Turkish embassies and consulates to compile dossiers on people suspected of being followers of the influential Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. Charges were filed immediately, but the investigation did not start before chancellor Angela Merkel returned from a state visit to Turkey in February 2017. By this time, ten of sixteen imams had been recalled to Turkey under directions from Diyanet, which employs imams and sends them to Germany. The award speech criticised DİTİB for trying to treat the issue as just an internal affair and avoid public scrutiny, and the German society for failing to ensure a free exercise of the Islamic faith.

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The “Workplace” award went to the company Planung für Logistik & Transport GmbH (PLT, “Planning for Logistics and Transport”) for promoting a “staff tracker”. This device provides employers with real-time information on the movements of their employees. This is exacerbated by the fact that PLT’s promotional material misrepresents the legal situation, claiming that Germany’s minimum wage requires such extreme tracking with precision to the minute and metre. There is even an apparent suggestion for concealed deployment of the tracker, making its use clearly illegal. The examples offered on the company’s website do not provide evidence to support the claims that customers are using the devices via company’s internal agreements, and the jury doubted the substance of these claims.

In the “Economy” category the German IT business association Bitkom was called out for their uncritical promotion of big data and for obtrusively lobbying against data protection. Their lobbying has recently targeted the adaptation of German data protection law following the enactment of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Bitkom has taken to calling basic principles of data protection “outdated” and “over-regulated”, trying to introduce new and vaguer notions such as “data wealth” and “data sovereignty” as alternatives. Worryingly, their language has been closely echoed in recent speeches from the three relevant ministers and also from chancellor Merkel. The objective of Bitkom’s lobbying obviously is to reduce state regulation, replace it by “voluntary self-regulation” and give companies a free rein for pursuing big data business models. The award called on the government to stop fulfilling the IT industry’s every wish, and it called on companies to capitalise on German companies’ expertise regarding data protection and privacy.

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich) received the “Education” award for cooperating with the online learning provider Coursera. The speech presenting the award called data about students’ learning results a “treasure trove”, pointing out that Coursera as a company reserves the right to exploit this data commercially. Universities were warned not to make participation in online courses a condition for earning mandatory credits. If an appropriate European platform does not exist, it should be the universities’ duty to create such platform.

In the “Authorities and Administration” category, the award went to the German Federal Military (“Bundeswehr”) and the Federal Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen. They have recently decided to join the global “cyber” arms race and set up a “Commando Cyberspace and Information Space”. The award speech reminded that these activities were lacking parliamentary control, democratic oversight and even legal basis. Empowering units to mount their own cyber attacks on other countries and their infrastructure could create new risks of military action that might affect civilians and open pathways to a quick escalation of cyberspace activities into a regular war.

The company Prudsys received the award in the “Consumer Protection” category for offering software that facilitates price discrimination. This software sets a price according to what it can find out about the individual customer, not according to a product’s value. As a consequence, two different people may have to pay a different price for the same product. Prudsys is promoting its technology to online shops, but also to physical retail stores through the use of electronic price tags. The award criticised this as “a world driven by greed” where there are “no humans, no individual products, no satisfaction, no service […] – only numbers” and customers lose out due to a grave imbalance of knowledge between them and the traders.

The audience at the gala were asked to name the one award they found particularly impressive, astonishing, shocking or revolting. This year the clear winner, with about a third of the votes, was the “Authorities and Administration” award to the German military and the Minister of Defence.

All the award speeches have been translated into English, and the gala was also recorded and simultaneously interpreted into English. The original recording has already been published, with the English version to follow.

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The German Big Brother Awards 2017, English translations

Videos of the German Big Brother Awards

(Contribution by Sebastian Lisken, EDRi member Digitalcourage)