Police cameras won Big Brother Awards in Czechia
EDRi member in the Czech Republic Iuridicum Remedium handed out its anti-prizes for the eighteenth time in March 2023. 2022 was exceptional: one of the "awardees" came for the award, and the others had to express themselves under the pressure from the media.
In the Czech Republic, there are hundreds of police cameras along the roads to fill a database called Automatic Vehicle Control. This database should be used in particular for criminal investigations. But as it turned out, records of vehicle movement are also used by tax authorities for tax inspections of logbooks. What’s even worse, the Supreme Administrative Court confirmed in 2022 that this was fine. The Senate of the Supreme Administrative Court earned the Official Snooping Award in the Czech competition for this blessing.
According to the Big Brother Awards jury, this decision opens the door for others to use camera data in a similar, arbitrary way. According to the jury, the police do not have clear authority in the law. It relies only on the general rule that it can take photographs or other recordings in public space for its own needs. The database records the passage of all vehicles, regardless of whether the drivers have done anything “wrong”. The records contain an automatically readable license plate linked to information about the time and direction of passage and photos of the vehicle and driver. The data shall be kept for half a year to one year from their recording.
“Pleasant meeting with privacy advocates”
The anti-prize for the Official Snooper was received directly at the live announcement by the President of the Supreme Administrative Court, Karel Šimka. “And the meeting was actually quite pleasant because I met people I respect. And we had quite a good conversation about all sorts of things related to personal data protection, privacy protection, and so on,” Šimka commented the next day after receiving the award. The media discovered a few days after the announcement that the criticised decision had recently been annulled by the Constitutional Court. The holder of the Anti-Prize Official Snooper will have to re-examine the matter. This time, however, under increased media and civil society’s attention.
When the Sign-Out button doesn’t mean sign out
The award was given to Seznam.cz, a popular Czech search engine, an e-mail service provider and, recently, an important player in the news industry. They received the Corporate Snooper Award for their Sign-Out button, which does not lead to unsubscribing from the services. The user who presses the button is further tracked, their data on online activities are collected and personalised content is targeted accordingly. The user must also click Forget to avoid being tracked by the Seznam. The popular Czech company draws attention to this measure in terms and conditions, but according to the jury, it is a classic case of the “dark pattern” that confuses users on the internet.
The prize for Big Brother’s Statement went to the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Marian Jurečka, who said in the media that data on children’s absences from school should be automatically used to withdraw social benefits from parents. The Long-Term Snooper Award went to Microsoft for its long-term non-transparent collection of user data. In particular, the jury “appreciated” Microsoft’s approach to collecting personal data about users in the context of online school teaching.
As a recently published technical analysis by the German data protection authority showed, Microsoft collects data about pupils and teachers, including the content of emails, documents or presentations, in a very non-transparent way. This data is then transferred to the USA in violation of data protection legislation. The jury also mentioned the trend in some European countries such as Germany, France or the Netherlands, where partial bans on Microsoft or Google products are gradually taking place.
"On the contrary, in the case of the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Education does not care about these problems and leaves them in the competence of schools. However, they do not have sufficient professional capacities to effectively solve the problem. Users of Microsoft products have no way to object to their use if the school decides to use them. At the same time, politicians often cooperate uncritically with companies such as Microsoft and Google and open the doors to schools and authorities for their products."
NoLog is an alternative to the services of technology giants
Karel Šimka was not the only winner to attend the Big Brother Awards. Representatives of the NoLog association, which received the Positive Privacy Award, also came. NoLog runs encrypted applications and tools that are a functional alternative to the products of the tech giants. The use of NoLog’s services is free of charge and is not associated with the need to provide personal data. The Services are funded by voluntary contributions and are designed to protect the freedom to share information and the privacy of users.
The representatives of the association, who received the award, described the reasons why they decided to provide services: misuse of personal data. These apply to both law enforcement and large technology companies. These are the reasons that led to the launch of NoLog’s services in 2018 and continue to be present today. Specifically, representatives of NoLog mentioned the European Union’s effort to introduce so-called Chat Control, i.e. automatic scanning of all electronic communications in order to identify materials with child pornography.
In recent years, the BBA event organizers have discovered that the term Big Brother as such is no longer comprehensible to people. Rather than associating it with George Orwell’s famous cautionary book, some associate it with reality TV shows. Due to the media and wider public interest, 2022 promises that in a time of turbulent technological changes, the value of privacy will again be perceived as important and indisputable.