Big Brother Award of 2007 goes out to … You!

On: September 25, 2007
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About Erik Borra
Erik Borra is assistant professor in Journalism and New Media at the University of Amsterdam.


Friday the 21st of September, the annual Dutch Big Brother Awards were held at the Balie in Amsterdam. It was organized by the – unfortunately no longer existent – Bits of Freedom, an organisation which came up for your digital civil rights.

The Big Brother award went out to You, the Dutch civilian, who according to the jury is the biggest threat to privacy. Because of the indifference – “I don’t have to hide anything” – and the disinterest at who looks to your personal data, the civilian is responsible for the demise of privacy in the Netherlands. Where Time praised ‘You’ last year as person of the year, de BBA-jury warns you with this price for the ease with which you take far reaching intrusions to your privacy for granted.

Except that we are – almost – forced to leave data traces through loyalty cards, RFID enabled travel passes, querying search engines and just by surfing the net in general; I think a lot of people tend to have an on-line exhibitionist urge. This is best exemplified by social networking sites like the Dutch Hyves, Facebook, MySpace, and the like, but also on sites like youtube and On almost all of these sites people can fill in their likes and dislikes and show these to everybody – although there are varying degrees of ‘openness’: sometimes you will need a login to that site and sometimes only friends (of friends) can see your profile.

To make people feel how information retrieval, data mining, and profiling of public information can have an impact on their lives I am now involved in a couple of projects. For picnic I am helping out on a coffee table on which you can place your RFID enabled conference badge. The coffee table then looks up your name and finds some fun facts in the picnic database. After that some Google queries for your name are made. These results are then visualized on the table in a data swirl with complete sentences about you. If there is time I want to include Hyves, Facebook and MySpace profile data. Fact is that not all data will be correct – but the same is true in data mining. Fun (?) however, is that because there will also be a lot of correct data, the people sharing a coffee with you on that table will not know what is true and what not. You will be judged by the information given by the machine.

Another initiative to make people feel how seemingly irrelevant information about them can be used with great impact is a voting machine based on Hyves profile data. The profiles of all the friends of Dutch politicians on Hyves have been scraped; these contain the usual demographics like age, sex, and hometown, but also other fields like favorite food, music, movies, books, clubs, etcetera. On the basis of this data we will be able to make a, typical dutch, ‘stemwijzer’. A stemwijzer is a questionnaire usually based on party programs, but sometimes also based on past voting behavior of the parties. After you filled in the questionnaire you are presented by a ranked list of parties on the basis of your answers. Now that there is Hyves data we can ask you which books or music or whatever you like and tell you who you should vote, based on the shared similarity or uniqueness of your data with other friends of that partyleader. Or you can just fill in your user name and ‘the machine’ will tell you what to vote – no effort or participation will be required. ‘Just click here to agree.

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