Maynooth University students Rí Anumudu and Chikemka Abuchi-Ogbonda were crowned team champions of the 61st Irish Times Debate competition at the event’s grand final on Saturday night.
The individual speaker’s award went to Gabrielle Fullam of the TCD Historical Society.
The event, Ireland’s longest-running third-level debating competition, took place at an outdoor black-tie event in the gardens of the Museum of Literature Ireland, St Stephens’s Green, Dublin.
Speakers were competing for the Demosthenes Trophy for best team, and the Christina Murphy Memorial Trophy for best individual.
The runner-up team was made up of Kate Maher and Megan O’Driscoll of the TCD Philosophical Society, while the runner-up speaker was Daire McMullin of the Solicitors’ Apprentice Debating Society of Ireland (Sadsi).
Speakers were assessed across a range of competencies including the reasoning used, the examples and rebuttals offered, and how well arguments were made.
The motion for the debate was “This House Believes privacy is dead”, and was chaired by Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.
The debate was opened by Tony O’Halloran of the UCC Law Society, who, arguing for the motion, said privacy was currently undergoing “a postmortem”.
“The industrial revolution was fuelled by the destruction of our planet,” he said. “Today’s technological revolution isn’t fuelled by coal and steel. It is fuelled by data. This data is you. Your hopes. Your fears. Your thoughts.
‘Privacy is dead’
“Environmental concerns stood in the way of the industrial revolution, so we ignored them. Privacy stood in the way of the technological revolution so we killed it. Privacy is dead. This debate is not a diagnosis or a surgery. It is a postmortem.”
Much of the focus from the speakers against the motion focused on the definition of “privacy”.
Winner Ms Anumudu suggested that while Big Tech may have access to people’s social preferences, the “persona” of the individual remains outside their grasp.
“Essentially we care more deeply about the living, breathing image we have carefully curated than the stagnant factoids that make up our data,” she said.
Also speaking against the motion, Mr McMullin of Sadsi told the audience: “If you have any doubt about the vim or vigour of privacy, just ask members of the proposition if you can have their email password, or – better yet – ask them to turn on their Zoom cameras when they are attending lectures from their beds.”
Ms Fullam of the TCD Historical Society, arguing against the motion, focused her argument on the concept that privacy is not dead “because the information is incorrect”, and touched on racial profiling scandals on the part of US law enforcement agencies to support her point.
“The California gang database contains the names and details of over 150,000 suspected gang members,” she said. “In 2016, it was ruled to be full of unsubstantiated and incorrect entries, mainly affecting Black and Latino residents.
“The database, fuelled by machine-learning algorithms, had recorded the names of 42 babies under the age of one of being self-described gang members.
“Being born in the wrong part of LA, with the wrong name and the wrong skin, said more to law enforcement officials than you could ever articulate yourself.
“They will not even wait until you are old enough to speak to decide what you have to say.
“The proposition wants you to think privacy is dead. That the surveillance state knows you better than you know yourself. But what they fail to understand is that for millions of people around the world, the data collection is not just biased or warped, it is totally fabricated.”
The judges were Paul O’Neill, editor, The Irish Times; Dr David Kenny, associate professor, Law, Trinity College Dublin and team winner in 2008; Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair, individual winner in 2016; Dara Keenan, team winner in 2017, and Aishling Kinsella, individual runner-up in 2019.
Previous winners of the debate, which was first held in 1960, include broadcaster Marian Finucane, comedian Dara Ó Briain, writer Gerry Stembridge and the late Adrian Hardiman. President Michael D Higgins and former president Mary Robinson were finalists.