Cars that report your every false move to local law authorities. Huge databases with detailed information on every citizen. Companies that only honor privacy guidelines when it’s profitable for them to do so.
These were some of the winners of Privacy International’s sixth annual U.K. Big Brother Awards, announced Wednesday. The awards are an annual attempt to publicly name and shame the government and private-sector organizations that have done the most to invade personal privacy in Britain.
The winners of Worst Public Servant, Most Invasive Company, Most Appalling Project, Most Heinous Government Organization and Lifetime Menace were selected by a panel of experts consisting of lawyers, academics, consultants, journalists and civil rights activists.
Winners were chosen from roughly 300 people and organizations nominated by the public. They receive a lovely gold statue of a boot stamping on a human head, which is usually mailed to the winners, as none has never shown up to collect its award.
Big Brother Awards are now held as an annual event in 17 countries. Each event typically focuses on privacy violations in the host country.
But Privacy International opted to make an exception this year by including in the U.K. awards a U.S. initiative, US-Visit. This security program requires that most foreign visitors traveling to the United States on a visa have their index fingers digitally scanned and a digital photograph taken, so that immigration officers can verify their identity before the visitors are allowed entry into the United States.
“The scheme is offensive and invasive, and has been undertaken with little or no debate or scrutiny,” said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. “Nor has the requirement taken any account of the ‘special relationship’ between the U.K. and the U.S. The U.K. government has been silent about the program and has capitulated every step of the way.”
Margaret Hodge, U.K. minister of state for children, won Worst Public Servant because of her support for a controversial tracking system that would share information collected on minors by Britain’s National Health program with other government agencies.
While the ministry believes that such tracking would prevent child abuse, others have fought it on the basis that sharing such information is a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality.
British Gas was cited as the Most Invasive Company, after it declared that U.K. privacy rules prevented it from helping an elderly couple who were found dead of hypothermia in their home last winter, weeks after their gas service was cut off due to nonpayment of a 140-pound ($255) bill.
British Gas said the Data Protection Act, intended to ensure that personal information is protected, prohibited it from reporting the situation to social services agencies that could have helped the couple restore heating service.
Runner-up in this category was banking firm Lloyds TSB, which has been demanding that customers present themselves at their local branch office with proper photo ID or face having their bank accounts frozen. Lloyds describes the project as a way to stop terrorism and international money laundering.
FollowUs, a company that uses GPS chips embedded in mobile phones to locate the phones’ users “for peace of mind, security or fun” was also a runner-up.
Most Appalling Project was awarded to Britain’s National Health Service electronic medical records program, which aims to computerize patient records in a way that some have protested is insecure and will compromise patient privacy.