The German association Digitalcourage awards the annual Negative Prize – Zoom, the Ministry of Finance and Microsoft are honoured.
The “data sin” is an offence that often goes unpunished. The Digitalcourage association has been drawing attention to this in Germany since the turn of the millennium and presents the Big Brother Awards to the biggest “data sinners” of the previous year. This year’s award ceremony took place in Bielefeld on Friday. In the category “Authorities and Administration”, this time it was the Federal Ministry of Finance with its leading minister Christian Lindner (Liberal Democrats). The activists criticised the Platform Tax Transparency Act, which has been in force since 1 January. It is supposed to ensure tax justice for internet services and was originally aimed at commercial portals like Airbnb or Uber. At the same time, however, the law forces providers to comprehensively retain user data. This affects people who use Ebay or Ebay Classifieds for private sales. If the companies find that a seller makes more than thirty sales in a calendar year and has a turnover of more than €2.000, this must be automatically transmitted to the Federal Central Tax Office. Both sides must keep the data for ten years.
In the category “Consumer Protection”, Deutsche Post DHL Group received an award from Digitalcourage. The company first accustomed its customers to Packstations and now forces them to use a smartphone and a company-owned app for convenience. In the process, the app sends data to other companies for advertising purposes without users being able to notice or turn it off. “This digital coercion deserves special rebuke, because here a former state-owned company excludes citizens from an important basic service,” explains digital activist Rena Tangens in her laudation.
The negative prize in the category “Communication” went to the company Zoom and its video conferencing system of the same name. Zoom forwards data to authorities while claiming to adhere to European data protection laws, according to the criticism. As a company based in the USA, Zoom is subject to various laws that make information on non-US citizens to intelligence services mandatory. Zoom cannot therefore be used legally in Germany and Europe, according to the laudation by the artist padeluun, co-founder of the Digitalcourage association and the Big Brother Award.
Zoom became widespread worldwide with the Corona pandemic, padeluun calls this an “unknown side effect that is also not so easy to eradicate”. In his speech, the artist also finds a creative meaning for the verb “zoom”, which has become established for the use of the system: “To divulge secrets under the observation of the secret services of various countries and companies and at the same time reveal one’s complete network of relationships.” But he also dedicates the award to users – including human rights, environmental and climate organisations – who expose their subscribers to surveillance by using Zoom, even though there are free and privacy-friendly alternatives.
Like Zoom, Microsoft also regularly transmits data on the digital activities of its users to the USA. In this way, they become “monitorable in real time”, according to the laudator Thilo Weichert. Weichert was the independent data protection commissioner of the state of Schleswig-Holstein for many years, and during that time he repeatedly tangled with internet giants like Facebook and Google. “Not only has the corporation established its office software as the global standard. After ousting alternatives, users are now also forced to use Microsoft’s own cloud when running the software. The result: Microsoft controls virtually all data processing,” Weichert criticises. With similar justification, Microsoft already received the Big Brother Awards in 2002, as it did this year in the category “Lifetime Achievement”.
Because it remains unteachable even after several notices about the lack of data protection, Digitalcourage finally awards another negative prize to Finleap Connect GmbH from Hamburg. The company’s software tries to identify and notify the affected direct debit recipients after bank customers change their account – actually a great service, as Digitalcourage also confirms. However, personal data is falsely sent to companies that have nothing to do with it. In the Digitalcourage office, too, “quite a few letters full of private information have arrived” about people who are completely unknown in the Digitalcourage member database.
Finleap even wants to accept the Big Brother Awards, Digitalcourage reports. The company has declared to have been “informed about data leaks” by several payment partners. However, the association doubts that these were plugged in 2021 as claimed. Even after 2021, Digitalcourage’s office had received letters with sensitive data from those affected.
Time and again, winners of the Big Brother Awards have changed their practices, writes Digitalcourage. One award to Tchibo, for example, led the company to stop trading in customer data. After an award to the US company Computer Science Corporation, for which Edward Snowden had also worked in the service of the US military intelligence agency NSA, public bodies had changed their award guidelines. Since then, companies with this kind of intelligence contacts would no longer be considered.
Published in German in „nd“.