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ChoicePoint Top Big Brother Pick 

Wired News | April 7, 2005
By Joanna Glasner

Two major data brokers, a California elementary school and Google's Gmail service are leading contenders for the Big Brother Awards -- a dubious prize spotlighting organizations with egregious privacy practices.

Award recipients will receive a statue of a golden boot stomping on a human head.

The nominees were among those on a list made public Wednesday by Privacy International , the British watchdog group that runs the annual U.S. Big Brother Awards. The group plans to announce winners on April 14.

Simon Davies, Privacy International's director, predicts that this will be an extraordinarily difficult year for selecting a winner, given that there are so many strong candidates.

He said the group received nominations for hundreds of companies, organizations and government agencies. "People have gone out of their way to investigate and come to intelligent conclusions about the balance of public interest and private rights," Davies said.

Nominees are selected by the public, after which a panel of judges, mostly privacy advocates, chooses the winners.

There are some clear front runners. Davis estimated that at least one in five nominations submitted named ChoicePoint, the data broker that generated headlines earlier this year after selling personal information for about 145,000 people to criminals.

ChoicePoint already received Big Brother's Greatest Corporate Invader award in 2001. This year, it could receive the Lifetime Menace award, previously granted to Osama bin Laden, Adm. John Poindexter and the National Security Agency, among others.

ChoicePoint declined to comment on the nomination.

Several government agencies and initiatives appear likely to get a prize, including the Transport Security Administration for its controversial airline passenger-screening program. The US-Visit fingerprinting and data system, which seeks to fingerprint all foreign visitors to the United States, also made the short-list for awards.

Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, California, is an unlikely candidate, but received a sizeable number of nominations for its attempt to make students wear ID badges containing radio-frequency identification devices.

A second data broker, Acxiom, is also a strong contender for an award, for lobbying to water down key federal privacy laws immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And then there's Google's Gmail, which has drawn strong criticism for its practice of examining private messages to serve targeted advertising.

But Davies said many of the most frightening privacy practices submitted in nominations didn't make the short-list because Privacy International was unable to independently confirm the reports.

One example of an alarming but unverified case involved a woman who claimed her employer hired a private investigator out of suspicion she lied about a pregnancy. Another came from a person who claimed his employer passed on information in a work e-mail to a member of his immediate family.

Davies said people frequently nominated their employers for a Big Brother award. In many cases, nominees were small companies or local law enforcement agencies that, due to their size, didn't generate much attention in the news for invasive privacy practices.

In future years, however, Davies said he hopes to heap shame on more of these obscure, privacy-invading companies and agencies.

"If what's going on in these small companies is symptomatic of what's going on in the rest of the country," he said, "then we have to reflect that."

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