2010: Big Tech is watching you

10 Dec 2021

Image: © spainter_vfx/Stock.adobe.com

The seeds of surveillance capitalism are starting to sprout while Stuxnet attacks, 3D TV flops, and a 2D game of flinging furious fowl is a runaway success.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

Tweets were sent in their billions in 2010, and at least some of them were about Irish showband sensations Crystal Swing. This internet-famous group was not among the stellar line-up for the second Dublin Web Summit, but founders from Twitter, YouTube, Skype and Bebo were all invited for the Irish event and its new sister conference, Founders.

As US tech was reaching across the Atlantic and landing in Dublin, an ill wind that blew in from that side of the world had left Europe shuddering. The debt crisis that followed the financial crash was taking hold across the EU, and Ireland was among the worst hit. In late November, the EU agreed to an €85m bailout package to rescue the country’s failing financial sector.

The unemployment rate continued to trend upwards, but jobs were still being created in tech as more Irish outposts were established and growing. US analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet was among them.

“Dun & Bradstreet opened its software and data operations centre in Dublin in 2010 with the express intent to leverage the technical talent in the Irish market,” said Donal Cavanagh, the company’s present-day Dublin site lead. “In the intervening decade, we have seen both the explosion of data and the critical role data now plays in the successful running of any business. … Everyone is looking for growth, to manage risk, to navigate ever-growing compliance directives. Today, in a world that is digitalised, the way to connect and control these is through data.”

There was still plenty of money to be made in the age of big data and, as a new decade dawned, analysis and monitoring were moving beyond the commercial and into the personal lives of individuals.

Facebook, fame and the right to privacy

Facebook was reaching new heights in 2010, hitting 500m users just over halfway through the year. Among them was about a third of the Irish population.

Facebook had become so mainstream it was taken to the big screen. Directed by David Fincher and penned by Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network wowed critics and topped the US box office. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the film completely misrepresented the motivation behind the social media platform, but conceded that the costuming was fastidious. “Every single shirt and fleece they had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own,” he said.

Meanwhile, the subject matter of future Facebook documentaries was coming to the fore. At the January Crunchies awards in San Francisco, Zuckerberg made comments downplaying users’ desire for privacy. He was forced to eat his words in May after a glitch was found that could make users’ chat messages and pending friend requests visible if exploited, and a Wall Street Journal report claimed advertisers on platforms such as Facebook were using a privacy loophole to retrieve personal information.

Zuckerberg responded with an op-ed in the Washington Post announcing new privacy controls. “The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information,” he wrote, changing his tune from earlier in the year.

This became the holding pattern for Facebook privacy concerns for years to come, as the vast trove of information offered up by the platform presented just too tempting an opportunity for data mining. Indeed, this was the year the US National Security Agency started its large-scale social mapping programme, though that wouldn’t be revealed until later. In the meantime, the man who made half a billion friends closed out 2010 as Time magazine’s Person of the Year and with almost $2bn in revenue.

Nightmare on Google Street View

Of course, Facebook wasn’t the only tech company building a lucrative business on an abundant data mine.

Google was stirring up its own privacy-centred controversy in 2010, as it was revealed that the company’s Street View mapping vehicles had captured more than they should have. (And not just the “odd or inappropriate moments” caught on camera.)

Street View had mapped Ireland’s major cities in 2009 and its cars returned the next year to fill in some gaps. This was after it had emerged that unauthorised code deployed by Street View captured data broadcast over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks in more than 30 countries. This prompted investigations in the US, Spain and the UK, while the Irish Government demanded that Google simply delete the data it had intercepted.

Eventually the US investigation was closed after Google promised to improve its internal procedures. The company also promised to delete the data it collected in the UK.

In Germany, Google agreed to allow residents to opt out of the service and have images of their homes blurred out. This, however, made these homes a target for vandals.

Street View launched in Ireland at the end of September, after its cars and pedal-powered trikes finished their intensive mapping of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. It had reached all seven continents in 2010, and even photographed several penguin colonies in Antarctica.

They really tried to make 3D TV happen

While controversial in its roll-out, Google was right in thinking that Street View was something that people wanted to see. What viewers didn’t want, however, was 3D TV.

Spurred on by the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s Avatar in December 2009, TV-makers and broadcasters threw their weight behind 3D entertainment in a big way.

Sky was the first network to announce a 3D TV channel for Ireland and the UK (and SiliconRepublic.com got a pre-launch sneak peek in 2009). Sony built one of the world’s first 3D outside broadcast trucks and, by March, Samsung and LG promised at-home sets. Ireland’s first 3D TV broadcast, a Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea, was made on 3 April – adding a whole new dimension to watching sports.

That same month, Samsung pointed out that 3D TV might cause motion sickness, altered vision, disorientation, eye strain and instability, among other things.

Add that to the high cost and low content on 3D TV, and the market just wasn’t adding up. Even though 3D TVs were shipping faster than HD TVs in November 2010, it wouldn’t be long before most 3D TV sets and services were no longer available.

Angry Birds take flight

But with touch-enabled smartphones becoming ubiquitous, the demand for mobile gaming was at an all-time high. And along came Finnish game developer Rovio to take a (sling)shot at this trend.

Angry Birds launched in late 2009 at the height of the swine flu epidemic, hence the antagonist pigs. It quickly rose ranks in projectile motion to become the number-one iPhone game. When it finally arrived on Android, it scored more than 1m downloads in one day as more and more users flung themselves into the action.

The Android roll-out was slightly scuppered by the fragmentation of the Google mobile ecosystem, and this would become a common issue for the rival to Apple’s tightly controlled iOS. But its popularity held strong and, by year end, Angry Birds was top of the app charts – another feather in its cap.

Stuxnet stokes fears of cyberwarfare

Another viral success of 2010 was far less charming. The Stuxnet computer worm was first detected in the summer, described as one of the most refined pieces of malware ever discovered.

The threat it posed became clear in September when it attacked Iran’s first nuclear power plant. While initially described as cyberterrorism, some experts felt it had to have been a state-sponsored cyberattack due to the worm’s sophisticated design.

Some saw Stuxnet as a new form of cyberwarfare. Within days, a major cybersecurity exercise was set to assess the vulnerability of vital services in the US and, later, the US military created a Cyber Command to protect its networks. However, security technologist Bruce Schneier said that threats of cyber war and terrorism were grossly exaggerated and were really hindering our understanding of online risks.

By the end of the year, Stuxnet code had made its way to underground forums, while threat reports and a former CIA director predicted the rise of cyberattacks in the future.

In other news

27 January: Apple unveils the iPad, a nine-inch tablet computer with all the capabilities of an iPhone, minus the phone.

16 February: At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announces that the company is now pursuing a “mobile first” strategy.

23 March: LinkedIn connects with Dublin, announcing that it will establish its international headquarters in the Irish capital.

5 April: WikiLeaks publishes footage of a 2007 airstrike on Baghdad, which shows a US helicopter killing civilians.

30 April: Journalist Mark Little bases his social media news service Storyful (which he founded in January) at the National College of Ireland Business Incubation Centre, alongside Barracuda FX and Ian Lucey’s Lucey Technology.

6 May: A trillion-dollar stock market crash is triggered by a series of automated trading programs entering a feedback loop.

20 May: Scientists create the first synthetic cells in a project that took 15 years to complete.

22 May: In a big moment for bitcoin’s use, computer programmer Laszlo Hanyecz trades 10,000 bitcoin for two pizzas from Papa John’s. (At today’s rate, those pizzas cost more than €210m each.)

27 May: Whistleblower Chelsea Manning is arrested by the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.

11 June: The FIFA World Cup kicks off in South Africa and the deafening sound of vuvuzelas in the crowd inspires Irish start-up Restored Hearing to pitch its tinnitus treatment to football fans.

15 June: One day after the slim iPhone 4 with its high-definition Retina display is made available for pre-order, Apple and AT&T have already sold out of their initial stock.

24 June: Ergo’s financial software spin-off Fenergo raises €2m in funding from Enterprise Ireland and the European Investment Bank to go global.

16 July: Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger posts the platform’s first photo: an artistically angled harbour view through a window. (The app would arrive on the App Store in October.)

25 July: WikiLeaks publishes a trove of more than 90,000 classified documents on US military action in Afghanistan.

10 August: Physicist Stephen Hawking says he believes “that the long-term future of the human race must be in space”.

10 August: The World Health Organization declares that the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic is over after just over a year.

10 September: A transatlantic flight is grounded at Shannon Airport after a charging mobile phone overheated to the point of melting and emitting smoke, unbeknown to its owner.

4 October: Twitter co-founder Ev Williams announces that he will step down as CEO, to be replaced by COO Dick Costolo.

5 October: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their groundbreaking graphene discovery from 2004.

9 October: Google announces that its self-driving cars have clocked more than 140,000 miles.

11 October: The Big Four record labels – EMI, Sony, Warner and Universal – fail in their bid to secure an injunction against UPC to implement a three-strike rule for illegal file-sharing.

22 October: The International Space Station outstrips Mir for the record of the longest continuous human occupation in space, passing its 3,641st day.

28 October: China’s Tianhe-1A, packed with more than 14,000 Intel Xeon processors and more than 7,000 Nvidia Tesla GPUs, is dubbed the world’s top supercomputer with the capability to perform 2,507trn calculations each second.

10 November: Microsoft launches the Kinect for Xbox 360 in Ireland with some help from Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

17 November: Researchers at CERN trap antimatter for the first time (for a sixth of a second).

18 November: Camara recycles its 20,000th computer in Ireland.

28 November: WikiLeaks publishes a collection of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables.

16 December: Following an international arrest warrant issued by Swedish police over allegations of sexual misconduct, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is released on bail from a second extradition hearing in the UK.

17 December: Reports emerge that Twitter is considering Dublin as the site of its European HQ.

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