Microsoft shortlisted for ‘most invasive project’

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Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative was nominated 'most invasive project' by activist group Privacy International in its annual Big Brother awards in the USA.

Now in its fifth year, the privacy group gave out awards - in the shape of a large golden boot stamping on a human head - at the annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference to the "government agencies, companies and initiatives that have done most to invade personal privacy," according to the London-based group.

Anti-terrorism surveillance proposals from the Defence, Justice and Homeland Security departments received the derision of the activist group. “This year's nominations reflected a protest against homeland security efforts that attempted to shock and awe freedom-loving Americans out of their civil liberties," said Chris Hoofnagle, organiser of the event.

Microsoft's proposed "trustworthy computing" system was a nominee for “Most Invasive Project” award. Other nominees included the call for incorporating into automobiles "event data recorders" that are like the "black boxes" on aeroplanes to record data on traffic accidents.

However, the US Defence Department's Total Information Awareness (TIA) project walked away with the prize. TIA is an attempt to anticipate future terrorist attacks by using computer data-mining tools to sift through commercial records of millions of Americans. The project calls for the development of "revolutionary technology for ultra-large all-source information repositories," which would contain information from multiple sources to create a "virtual, centralised, grand database." This database would be populated by transaction data contained in current databases such as financial records, medical records, communication records, and travel records as well as new sources of information. The project was conceived by retired Admiral John Poindexter.

Delta Air Lines won the title of "greatest corporate invader" for its participation in the Transportation Security Administration's testing of a system for screening airline passengers. Delta is a partner in the pilot of CAPPS II - Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System - in three cities in the US. The CAPPS II program is designed to draw from more than 100 sources to evaluate whether a passenger is "rooted in the community," and therefore not a flight risk.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which has been seeking to obtain personal information about a Verizon Communications Internet user, and the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic-leaning think tank that promotes biometric driver's licenses, were also nominated.

Poindexter also had the honour of having an award named after him, the "Admiral John M. Poindexter Lifetime Menace" award. This was presented to Osama bin Laden, the head of the al Qaeda terrorist network, for “giving Attorney General Ashcroft the excuse he needed to pass the USA PATRIOT Act and the Homeland Security Act, and the gall necessary to formulate PATRIOT II, new draft legislation designed to push police power even further”. Displaying video of a speech by bin Laden, Privacy International activists offered this translation: "Terrorists are clearly determined to force the USA to curtail freedoms. I am here to tell you that we have won."

In late March, the UK awards were announced, where Tony Blair picked up the “Lifetime Menace Award” because of “his active involvement in the government's attack on civil liberties.” Blair's government has angered privacy groups with his plans to force phone companies and Internet service providers to retain users' data for 12 months as part of the country's stepped-up war on terrorism and crime. Under the initiative, the government would have access to British citizens' phone numbers, e-mail addresses and the Web pages they visit.

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