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Taking control of online data

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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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Rocket Lab setting up for first Moon mission • The Register

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Rocket Lab has taken delivery of NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft at its New Zealand launch pad ahead of a mission to the Moon.

It’s been quite a journey for CAPSTONE [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment], which was originally supposed to launch from Rocket Lab’s US launchpad at Wallops Island in Virginia.

The pad, Launch Complex 2, has been completed for a while now. However, delays in certifying Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) pushed the move to Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand.

The wet dress rehearsal for the launch was completed last night, prompting CEO Peter Beck to say: “Next stop…the Moon!”

“I always wanted to say that,” he added. Beck has long dreamed of sending his rockets beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and is planning a mission to Venus in 2023. However, the Moon is than the company has sent its rockets to date.

CAPSTONE is to be sent to a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, a location planned for the NASA, ESA, and CSA Gateway. CAPSTONE’s primary mission is to verify simulations that the interaction gravity of the Earth and Moon will make for a stable orbit.

The milestone was hit as Rocket Lab announced its first quarter 2022 results. Overall, the company made a net loss of $26.7 million, down from the $15.9 million loss of the same period last year, but revenues jumped to $40.7 million from $18.2 million. Most interesting was the make-up of that revenue. Space Systems (the company’s Photon spacecraft and the components it sells) accounted for a whopping 84 percent of Q1 revenue. Actual Electron rockets fared less well; during a call with analysts, CFO Adam Spice said that launches contributed just $6.6 million.

Going forward, the company expects second quarter revenues to be between $51 million and $54 million. It is including three dedicated launches in that figure (of which CAPSTONE is one). Two have already happened, and there is potential for a fourth, but the company has opted to take a prudent path and not include it in the figures.

As for CAPSTONE, it will be integrated with the Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft bus ahead of the launch window opening on May 31. The Electron will launch the spacecraft into LEO and the Photon will take care of the ballistic lunar transfer via multiple orbit raisings. A final burn of Photon’s engine will occur on the sixth day, enough to escape Earth orbit and send CAPSTONE on a course for the Moon. ®



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Dublin’s UrbanVolt bags €36m for its solar energy business

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A DCU Alpha spin-out, UrbanVolt says it sells power generated from solar energy at up to 30pc lower rates than traditional suppliers.

UrbanVolt, a Dublin-based clean energy company, has secured €36m in financing to expand its solar panel business in Ireland and the UK.

The funding includes a €30m asset-backed seven-year loan from Swedish credit fund PCP and €6m from existing funding partners, BVP and Beach Point Capital.

Future Human

Founded in 2015 by Kevin Maughan, Graham Deane and Declan Barrett, UrbanVolt finances and installs solar panels on the rooftops of commercial and industrial businesses, selling the solar electricity generated to the businesses at up to 30pc lower rate than traditional suppliers.

The company said it also guarantees the price for up to 30 years, protecting businesses against rising energy costs for decades to come, with no minimum amount payable or standing charges – meaning that customers pay proportionate to their consumption.

“This is a transformational deal, which will allow us to scale at pace to meet the significant demand in the market while also streamlining the process of installing solar panels for our customers’ benefit,” said Maughan, who is also the CEO of the DCU Alpha spin-out.

“This first funding facility from PCP will see our project output grow by 20x over the coming years.  It is also happening at a time when the demand for renewable energy is rising significantly given climate and geopolitical crises.”

The loan facility will be used to fund the installation of solar panels and related equipment on UrbanVolt’s primary target of commercial and industrial client sites in both Ireland and the UK.

It started supplying solar-generated electricity directly to businesses in Ireland last summer, since when it has agreed contracts with more than 60 companies and completed seven installations.

Maughan sad that there is “simply no compelling reason” for commercial and industrial operators to opt for traditional energy sources anymore, adding that UrbanVolt offers “unparalleled” price security and clean energy.

“By incorporating an ‘as a service’ business model, our customers only pay for the energy they use without a standing charge, and the cost of our equipment and its maintenance is kept off their balance sheet.”

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$7.6bn of ‘stablecoin’ tether redeemed since start of crypto crisis | Cryptocurrencies

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Digital investors have withdrawn savings in the “stablecoin” tether worth $7.6bn (£6.2bn) since the cryptocurrency crisis began last week, suggesting the company has paid out a sum almost twice its total cash holdings to spooked depositors.

Stablecoins are supposed to have a fixed value matched to a real-world asset, in most cases $1 a token. However, faith in the concept was rocked last Tuesday when another big player, terra, broke its peg to the dollar. That has fuelled a wider sell-off across the crypto sector, which relies on stablecoins for much of its financial engineering.

Q&A

What is a stablecoin?

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A stablecoin, like the name suggests, is a type of cryptocurrency that is supposed to have a stable value, such as US$1 per token. How they achieve that varies: the largest, such as tether and USD Coin, are effectively banks. They hold large reserves in cash, liquid assets, and other investments, and simply use those reserves to maintain a stable price.

Others, known as “algorithmic stablecoins”, attempt to do the same thing but without any reserves. They have been criticised as effectively being backed by Ponzi schemes, since they require continuous inflows of cash to ensure they don’t collapse.

Stablecoins are an important part of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. They provide a safer place for investors to store capital without going through the hassle of cashing out entirely, and allow assets to be denominated in conventional currency, rather than other extremely volatile tokens.

Thank you for your feedback.

Tether, the third biggest cryptocurrency by “market cap”, experienced a short-lived crisis on Thursday when its value dropped from $1 to 95¢ as savers feared it would follow its fellow stablecoin terra and collapse. However, the token, which is controlled by a private company with close links to the crypto exchange Bitfinex, has since largely restored its dollar peg by honouring a promise to allow savers to always withdraw $1 for every tether they give back to the company.

The company only allows direct withdrawals of at least $100,000 for each request, and charges a fee of 0.1% on redemptions. Anyone with less tether than that minimum can only turn their money into dollars by finding someone to buy it from them – a disparity that fuelled the temporary collapse in value.

Despite the difficulties, according to public blockchain data, $7.6bn of tether has been reallocated in this way since Thursday. That is almost twice the cash that Tether had in its reserves at the end of last year, according to accounts published on its website.

Most of the rest of its reserves are held in “cash-like” assets, the majority of which are $35bn of US government debt and $25bn of corporate bonds. However, the company has refused to share any further details of the investments, with its chief technology officer, Paolo Ardoino, telling the Financial Times: “We don’t want to give our secret sauce.”

There have long been fears as to Tether’s ability to honour all redemptions. The company had once said it backed its currency with “US dollars”, a claim the New York attorney general said in 2021 “was a lie”. Now, it simply claims its currency is “backed 100% by Tether’s reserves”.

By contrast, terra was backed by a complex algorithm that required the value of a sister cryptocurrency, luna, to constantly rise in order to maintain the dollar peg. When the crash hit last week, the system went into a “death spiral”, automatically printing more luna, which crashed the price further, until luna lost 99.9995% of its value in a matter of days and terra was left languishing at $0.11.

The charismatic founder of the Terra project, Do Kwon, has said he wants to relaunch the currency. In a proposal posted to the project’s message board on Friday, he suggested wiping all ownership of luna, and redistributing 1bn new tokens, with most going to those who hold the stablecoin, or who held luna before last week’s crash.

“It is a hard balance – and no easy answers in redistributing value within the network,” Kwon wrote. “But value must be distributed to allow the ecosystem to survive, and in its current state it will not.”

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Kwon also faces questions about how the vast sums of bitcoin that his project had amassed to back terra were spent. According to a breakdown shared by the organisation, it sold more than 80,000 bitcoins, worth more than $2.4bn, to unnamed parties in exchange for terra valued at $1 – at a time when the public price of the currency was under 75¢.

The jitters around stablecoins have combined with a general slump in tech stocks and the wider US downturn to trigger a wider crisis of confidence across the crypto sector. Bitcoin and ethereum, the two biggest cryptocurrencies, are down more than 10% over the last seven days, with ethereum dropping 17% to less than $2,000. Smaller currencies have, as always, been more volatile, with dogecoin falling 26% over the week.

Even some of the most vocal backers of digital currencies are now querying the promises of the sector. The founder of the crypto exchange FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, said in an interview with the Financial Times that bitcoin has no future as a payments network because of the inherent inefficiencies of its blockchain, the public digital register that records its transactions. Instead, he argued, it could only function as a gold-like store of long-term value.



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