"Imagine the future as a boot stamping on a person's face"
- George Orwell, 1984
(report from SchNEWS/ 189, 30 November 1998)
The first annual UK Big Brother awards took place in London on Monday. Awards went to various government and corporate institutions - those forces of darkness that keep a shady eye on us all. They love to watch us, but we laughed to watch them exposed to the unwelcome spotlight, in a ceremony organised by watchdog group Privacy International and compèred by Channel 4 comedian, yer man Mark Thomas.
Bigger and sexier than the Oscars or any other such pieces of tack, these awards featured a golden boot stamping on a head. For the truth is becoming stranger and scarier than the Orwell's fictional dystopia*. We are all being watched, every day by an ever-tightening web of video cameras, police systems, and a vast range of computer-based surveillance databases. Uh-oh: too many powerful people have been reading their Orwell and taking it too seriously. Time to kick up some fuss....
Earlier in the day, cameras followed an activist doorstepping the unwilling recipients with their awards. Among those upon whom the dubious honour was bestowed was Newham Council, winners of the 'local government' category for launching a digital facial recognition system that allows their 140 CCTV cameras to identify up to 1000 people per second as they walk down the streets, matching them against police databases. Council officials appeared disgruntled when the cameras were turned on them, but after half an hour of playing with PR men and invading council meetings, the receptionist finally accepted the award on the Council's behalf - just as two coppers walked in through the entrance.
Next was the Department of Trade and Industry, who want us to hand over to the government our key passwords so the security services can read encrypted email. Funnily enough, the impetus for this comes entirely from the US, who have been instilling in our compliant govenment their outrage at people's ability to send messages to one another that the authorities can't read. What's the difference between a Dti policy maker and a shopping trolley? - A shopping trolley has a mind of its own. Yet they were pretty quick to make up their mind when presented with their award - this time a whole posse of police carried out the award bearer, still clutching the trophy.
Other award winners included arms manufacturers Procurement Services International (PSI) - featured on 'World in Action' selling surveillance technology equipment to the Indonesian regime with a nod and a wink from Tony Blair - scooped the award in the 'corporate' category. Another firm, Harlequin, took the 'product' award with their Watcall telephone billing software. Watcall allows UK police to analyse personal BT phone bill information to monitor links between friends and contact networks without a Home Office warrant.
But if you're really the sort of person who grew up looking through keyholes, opening other people's mail and listening at the bedroom door of newly-married couples, perhaps you too should consider a career with the US National Security Agency (NSA) winners of the 'Lifetime Achievement' award. At Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire they maintain the largest spy surveillance base in the western hemisphere since WWII, monitoring 'e-mails, telephone and fax communications' day in day out via 40,000 phone lines and satellites (see SchNEWS 160). Even Ladbrokes wouldn't offer odds on the American spies scooping this special golden boot.
Shouts went up as Mark Thomas presented the Winston ('Winnie') awards (after the character Winston Smith in 1984) to people who have been striking back a blow for the little people against these snooping bods. Peace campaigner Lindis Percy picked up a 'Lifetime Achievement' award for her running battle with the US Menwith Hill spy base. Among the others, Tash Lodge received a Winnie for his work photographing police harrassment of travellers and festival-goers, and SchNEWS also scooped one, which made our bosoms swell with pride.
Having promised an annual awards event in the future, Privacy International are looking at doing the 'Brother's' in eight countries across the world, starting with the US in April 1999. Simon Davies, director of PI said "it's taken over 8 years to get here, but now we have a solid platform of campaigners, activists and people power to take it to them. We have a serious anti-surveillance movement on our hands"
Dystopia, n. Nightmarish fictional world (opp. utopia). - SchNEWS VocabWatch
The Big Brother Survival Kit is now available, comprising a wealth of no-bullshit explanation, plus practical advice on how to protect yourself from the nosey-parkers. Includes Blaggers' guide to encryption' - essential reading. Send £1 worth of stamps to SchNEWS with an SAE.