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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Winner of the Big Brother Awards

George Orwell could not have envisioned that his imaginary 1984 character, Big Brother, would manifest itself into the symbol of the loss of privacy for generations to come. Although it is speculated by some that he really meant that 1984 would occur sometime after 2000—1984 could have been the year he completed the novel, 1948, with the last two numbers reversed—once again, could he have visualized a George W. Bush, with his rag-tag bunch of incompetent flunkies attempting to create an imperial presidency?

Probably not, but 1984’s major legacy is a tyrant called Big Brother, and we attach it to anything that reminds us of being under surveillance by government or business. And that is exactly where we are, characterized by the feds’ unrelenting spying techniques on innocent Americans, and junk mail and non-junk mail companies’ obsessive accumulations of our names and personal data.

Privacy International, a non-profit based in London, with its affiliates, presents the “Big Brother Awards” each year to government and private sector organizations that have done the most to threaten personal privacy. The ceremony has been held in sixteen countries since 1998, but we will concern ourselves with just the U.S.

The first of any significance was in 2000, where DoubleClick, then engaged in online media, received the “Greatest Corporate Invader” award for monitoring the surfing of 50 million net users. In the prior year, DoubleClick had acquired Abacus, a company performing analytical services for junk mailers by using sensitive customer data from catalog purchases covering almost half the U.S. households.

DoubleClick wanted to marry this private information with the net surfing habits of its 5 billion record database. This strategy was quickly rethought when privacy advocates, even junk mail industry leaders, reacted with shock.

Also in 2000, the “Lifetime Menace” award was bestowed on TransUnion, one of the big-three credit reporting companies, for selling credit reports to marketers and keeping inaccurate reports for years. TransUnion was also a persistent litigator to sell personal data their way. They went through a ten-year court battle with the Federal Trade Commission over the selling of sensitive credit information. They lost. In the end, the Supreme Court refused the case.

It should come with no surprise that ChoicePoint won as the “Greatest Corporate Invader” in 2001, for massive selling of records, accurate and inaccurate, to cops, direct marketers, and election officials. Then, of course, the bomb dropped in February of 2005, starting a string of data breaches that it seems will never end.

In connection with the “inaccurate” records, Privacy Activism, another non-profit, did a study on errors found in ChoicePoint’s data, which included name, Social Security number, address, and phone number. The mistake rate was 73 percent. Still not surprised.

And the one to watch that could bring Big Brother to all our doorsteps is Acxiom, winner of the “Worst Corporate Invader” in 2005, for a tradition of data brokering. Has to have something to do with that Privacy Activism study, where Acxiom’s sensitive records had an error rate of 67 percent. The reason to keep an eye on them is partly due to the company’s aggressiveness in pursuing government contracts for clandestine programs like CAPPS II, where the feds could secretly share with them everything they know about you.

Oh, by the way, a mailing list company by the name of Response Unlimited shared the Acxiom award, because they tried to sell the list of donors to the Terri Schiavo cause…while she was still alive. I can hardly wait for the 2006 Big Brother Awards.

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