The 'Big Brother' Awards

Privacy Rights graphic with Privacy Rights text. GD, 020419
AP / CBS
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and database billionaire Larry Ellison were named this year's most notorious American violators of personal privacy by leading advocacy groups Thursday.

The annual "Big Brother Awards" are presented to government, corporations and private individuals who allegedly have done the most to threaten personal privacy.

Privacy International, a London-based activist organization made up of privacy experts and human rights organizations from several dozen countries, presented the awards at the annual "Computers, Freedom & Privacy" conference here this week. They were joined by well-known U.S. privacy activists.

The "Worst Government Official" award went to Ashcroft. Privacy International said the top U.S. law enforcement officer is responsible for a massive increase in wiretapping of phones and other electronics and for the imprisonment without charge of as many as 1,200 people in the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

The "Worst Corporate Invader" honor went to Ellison of Oracle Corp., the world's leading maker of database software, for his advocacy of a centralized, Oracle-run government database that could be used as a national identification system.

The honors are given out in the spirit of author George Orwell and his warning about police surveillance in the totalitarian world of his novel "1984."

"The goal is to name and shame the bad actors," said privacy advocate Jason Catlett, president and founder of Junkbusters Corp. of Green Brook, New Jersey.

Other awards included "Most Invasive Company," "Most Appalling Project" and "Lifetime Menace." Each "winner" received a golden statue depicting a jackboot pressing down on a human head.

"There's not a lot of surprises here," Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington-based Privacy Times newsletter, said of the Big Brother nominees.

Most recipients fail to pick up the honor in person.

The "Most Appalling Project" honor went to the Enhanced Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS) project, a pre-flight screening of airline passengers set up in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The advocacy group argues this amounts to discriminatory treatment of passengers based on race or certain consumer behaviors.

— Privacy International singled out technology developers on the project including: HNC Software, a maker of fraud detection tools; Acxiom Corp., a collector of business and consumer data; Equifax, a credit information agency.

— Privacy International also hands out similar awards in eight European countries.

"What Americans tend to forget is that what happens here in America in terms of privacy practices and technologies is getting exported to other countries and undermining their privacy practices," said Stephan Endberg, a privacy consultant with Open Business Innovation, based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.