2018: Taking control of online data

19 Jan 2022

Image: © mixmagic/Stock.adobe.com

GDPR ushers in a new era of data protection right after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal shows us why it’s needed.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

On 20 August 2018, a 15-year-old girl in Sweden decided not to go to school. Instead, she protested outside the Swedish parliament building, demanding the country take action on the climate crisis.

Greta Thunberg was right to be concerned. Her school strike, which eventually evolved into the FridaysForFuture movement, began less than two months before a UN report warned that drastic action would be required to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Maynooth University climatologist Prof Peter Thorne was among the report’s 91 authors who, along with 133 contributors, compiled a comprehensive assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As if on cue, scientists released audio of Antarctic ice ‘singing’ a haunting song shortly after the IPCC report.

While Ireland made some effort on climate action by divesting from fossil fuels in 2018, overall data showed the country to be a ‘laggard’ on the issue and, according to the Climate Change Advisory Council, “completely off course” on emissions targets.

Missing these goals would have immediate as well as long-term consequences with the country expecting to be fined as much as €500m. Micheál Martin, TD, then leader of the opposition, described it as an “extraordinary story of failure”.

Before the year’s end, Ireland pledged €4.5m to six climate initiatives at COP24 and almost 200 nations agreed rules on implementing the Paris Agreement. It sounded like more empty promises, though, as environmental groups criticised the lack of progress on the issue to date. “People expected action, and that is what governments did not deliver. This is morally unacceptable,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.

Facebook under fire

Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 New Year’s resolution was to fix Facebook. What followed was possibly the platform’s most hellish year.

On St Patrick’s Day, joint reports in The New York Times and The Observer revealed a huge scandal involving the harvesting of the Facebook data of about 87m people for the purpose of mass manipulation through misinformation and targeted advertising.

Having been caught on camera boasting about his company’s powers of political interference, Andrew Nix, CEO of UK consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, was suspended. Facebook’s stocks took a tumble and there was a user exodus.

Zuckerberg later admitted Facebook made mistakes and new privacy features were introduced to give users’ control of their data. But he still had to face US Senate judiciary and commerce committees and EU MEPs. Later, the company would appeal a £500,000 fine in the UK.

In Ireland, Facebook’s content moderation policies were the subject of scrutiny by an Oireachtas Committee and politicians called for an end to self-regulation.

And Facebook’s woes didn’t end there. In September, the platform suffered the biggest data breach in its 14-year history, with 30m accounts affected by an access token-harvesting attack – though it was initially thought to have affected as many as 50m accounts.

There’s a new sheriff in town (it’s GDPR)

This is the world into which the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) arrived. As the deadline for compliance with the massive 261-page piece of EU legislation approached, inboxes were stuffed with countless privacy update requests.

On 25 May, the very day that GDPR became law, data privacy activist Max Schrems wasted no time, launching legal broadsides at tech giants worth €7bn. Some US websites were so panicked by the risk of fines that they blocked access in the EU.

Even with years of advance notice, only 20pc of organisations surveyed believed they were GDPR-compliant two months after it came into effect.

Then came the investigations. In October, the Irish Data Protection Commission began investigating a Facebook data breach. Shortly after, it was Twitter’s turn for alleged user tracking.

As well as transforming data retention practices, GDPR ushered in a noticeable decline in third-party cookies. It also set an example for the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), due to bring similar rules to Silicon Valley in 2020. Apple CEO Tim Cook believed the whole US should adopt GDPR-like rules to deal with the growing “data industrial complex”.

Deepfake dangers

The expression ‘deepfake’ was first used in print in 2018, referring to the face-mapping technology used by internet hobbyists to rework existing videos.

Lots of early deepfakes were made in jest, but as this fabricated video footage became easier to make and spotting them became harder, the implications for misinformation became apparent.

To demonstrate the case, comedian Jordan Peele made a deepfake of former US president Barack Obama. Obama may never have really called then president Donald Trump “a total and complete dipshit”, but Peele made it look scarily convincing.

People were also using deepfake technology to make pornographic videos. Gfycat deleted them and Reddit banned them, but a heinous genie was out of the bottle. Social media players became concerned over the negative impacts of deepfakes on their platforms and, in September, Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey faced a grilling at US congress over their plans to tackle deepfakes and bots.

5G foundations are laid

Fifth-generation wireless technology, better known as 5G, promised speeds up to 100 times faster than its 4G predecessor and networks were getting ready for the leap forward.

Early February saw the first live demo of pre-standard 5G in Ireland by Vodafone and Ericsson. Later, Three, Imagine and Eir laid out their 5G plans.

The standalone international 5G standard was passed in June and companies such as Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson were set for a windfall as they owned standard patents integral to its deployment. Nokia, for example, estimated that it would make €3 for every 5G smartphone sold.

Intel and Ericsson made a breakthrough when they achieved the first end-to-end 5G data call in July. In November, Vodafone went live with the first 5G trial site in Dublin’s Docklands. And by December, Qualcomm was ready with a new generation of chips for the first wave of 5G-enabled devices.

National Broadband Plan in jeopardy

And while 5G was taking shape, Ireland’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) was falling apart.

The €1bn State-backed plan to bring connectivity to about 540,000 people was off to a rocky start when Eir sensationally walked away from the procurement process in January. Added to the departure of Vodafone-ESB joint venture Siro the previous year, this left just one bidder: a consortium led by US telecoms mogul David McCourt involving Enet and SSE.

Then February delivered another shock when Enet CEO Conal Henry stepped down. Five months later, SSE exited the consortium.

By September, now called National Broadband Ireland, the consortium submitted its final bid for the tender. The group, led by McCourt’s investment firm, Granahan McCourt, included Enet, Nokia, Kelly Group, KN Group and Actavo, Denis O’Brien’s engineering services firm.

But the drama wasn’t over. In October, communications minister Denis Naughten, TD, resigned amid growing controversy over his contacts with McCourt.

In November, an audit of the procurement process concluded that there was no evidence the process was tainted by these meetings or that any sensitive or beneficial information was shared with final NBP bidder.

Chipocalypse now

2018 sent the tech world into meltdown as the spectre of a CPU vulnerability affected millions of devices.

Known as Meltdown and Spectre, the bugs affected nearly all chip-enabled devices and could potentially give hackers access to parts of the computer’s memory. Initially thought to stem from a flaw exclusive to Intel chips, the bugs turned out to have affected other major chipmakers, including AMD and ARM, impacting Microsoft and Apple devices alike.

Patches issued by Intel slowed down computers, especially the ones using older processors such as Broadwell and Haswell. but CEO Brian Krzanich promised that new chips with built-in protections were in the pipeline.

A new variant called Spectre 4, discovered by Microsoft and Google later in the year, could leave any chip on any 21st-century computer open to attack. Months later, scientists uncovered a whole new vulnerability dubbed Foreshadow which they had, ironically, not expected.

By the end of the year, however, no malware related to the flaws was reported on the prowl even though new variants of the original bugs continued to crop up.

In other news

13 January: The second Payment Services Directive (PSD2) becomes law across Europe, potentially unleashing a new world of open banking.

20 February: Carolan Lennon is named as the next CEO of Eir.

20 February: Security researchers report that Tesla’s Amazon Web Services environment was hacked in order to mine cryptocurrency.

28 February: GitHub is hit by the most powerful DDoS attack on record.

18 March: The death of Elaine Herzberg in Arizona is the first recorded case of a pedestrian fatality involving an experimental autonomous car.

14 April: Mark Pollock and Simone George close TED2018 with “the most powerful, moving talk” ever seen at the conference.

27 April: Prof Stephen Hawking’s last theory is published following his death in March.

30 April: WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum leaves Facebook in a clash over privacy.

16 May: The Irish Government is narrowly defeated in its effort to keep the age of digital consent at 13, as Dáil Éireann votes to raise it to 16.

4 June: Microsoft acquires GitHub for $7.5bn.

5 June: Microsoft sinks a small data centre off the coast of the Orkney archipelago in Scotland.

14 June: AT&T completes its $85.4bn takeover of Time Warner.

12 July: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle meet Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea and other leaders in diversity and inclusion, along with a number of young coders from the CoderDojo movement, at a round table in Dublin’s Dogpatch Labs.

12 July: Trinity reveals plans to build a €1bn campus known as the Grand Canal Innovation District.

18 July: The European Commission hits Google with a €4.34bn fine, finding that it abused its market dominance with Android.

2 August: Apple becomes the first public company to reach $1trn in value.

4 September: Amazon joins Apple in the $1trn club.

6 September: Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell is awarded a $3m Breakthrough Prize for her discovery of pulsars, for which her PhD supervisor was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1974.

10 September: Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma announces his plans to step down.

24 September: Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger leave Facebook to explore their “curiosity and creativity”.

10 October: Microsoft joins the Open Invention Network, an open-source patent consortium that provides a licence platform for Linux.

15 October: Science Foundation Ireland launches VistaMilk to research the entire dairy production chain.

28 October: IBM announces plans for a $34bn acquisition of Red Hat, its biggest ever.

1 November: Google employees stage a walk-out to protest the handling of sexual harassment cases at the company.

26 November: NASA’s InSight lander touches down on the surface of Mars, capturing snaps of its new home.

13 December: Revolut is granted a European banking licence.

17 December: Google is reported to have shuttered Project Dragonfly, an effort to bring a censored search engine to China which had drawn employee protests.

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