Tech firms react to netizens’ digital privacy concerns

Co-founder of Own Your Data Foundation and former business development director for Cambridge Analytica Brittany Kaiser (L) and Founder and CEO of the privacy protecting transaction platform Elixxir David Chaum (R) hold a conference on the impact of tech on our privacy, during the Web Summit in Lisbon. (AFP)
Updated 08 November 2019

Tech firms react to netizens’ digital privacy concerns

  • Tech entrepreneurs are bidding to turn growing consciousness of privacy into a money-making industry
  • Brittany Kaiser: “I believe there is an entire new industry around digital identity, data ownership, data management and data monetisation for yourself”

LISBON: Whistleblowers and digital pioneers have long been sounding the alarm about abuses of our privacy online.

Now, a slew of tech entrepreneurs are bidding to turn growing consciousness about the problem into a money-making industry and many showcased their skills at this week’s Web Summit in Lisbon.

“Undeniably, with the new tensions that exist, obviously there is a movement among people to regain their right to privacy,” organiser Paddy Cosgrave told AFP.

“Providing personalised encryption at the level of the device, so that any key stroke on your device is unreadable by a third party ... is booming. There are many companies trying to make progress in this space,” Cosgrave said.

“I believe there is an entire new industry around digital identity, data ownership, data management and data monetisation for yourself,” said American Brittany Kaiser who helped lift the lid on data abuses at Cambridge Analytica which last year found itself embroiled in a scandal involving the misuse of Facebook data.

Kaiser’s work at Cambridge Analytica is also a subject of a Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack”.

Kaiser co-created a foundation “Own your data” in order to “blow the whistle on the whole industry” and denounce abuses of companies harvesting data without web users’ explicit knowledge.

She warned that “it’s going to be hard to get to the point of mass adoption” of products and services designed to allay privacy fears but sees a “wave of momentum” after a year-and-a-half of campaigning.

Brendan Eich, founder of the Brave browser, as well as Mozilla and Firefox and the man behind JavaScript, observed “small minorities can move markets, and that’s happening”.

The way ahead is “privacy by default,” said Eich, touting data protection and adblock capabilities as key Brave attributes.

Eich hopes Brave will have 10 million users by year’s end, although he said that would have to double or even triple before it could generate revenues from opt-in online ads.

US “godfather of crypto” currencies, David Chaum, meanwhile said he believed the digital world has reached a key juncture.

“This is like a kind of a historic moment. I think if you look at smartphones, the killer app is clearly messaging integrated with payments.

Chaum is behind Elixxir, which seeks to offer digital privacy by deploying a mobile messaging app partnered with a virtual payment vehicle along the lines of Chinese behemoth Tencent’s We Chat platform, securing communications through blockchain protection.

Briton David Chance also wants to take digital privacy to another level having left Google to launch a startup, yourself.online, offering retrieval of data which has remained in the public sphere without user consent.

“The most shocking thing is the scale of the problem,” says Chance. “We find personal data for about 80 percent of the people that sign up for our service. That could be a phone number, an email address or a date of birth.

“Companies are gathering up information that we kind of left as our online footprints and are using this to determine whether somebody gets a job, credit or a mortgage.”

Following criticism for not doing enough to secure user data, Facebook recently promised to bring end-to-end encryption to its Messenger platform, as is already the case with WhatsApp.

Jay Sullivan, whom Facebook recruited earlier this year as Messenger’s director of product management and privacy and integrity issues, says data protection is now a basic reqirement, a decade after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggested privacy was no longer a “social norm” or indeed to be expected.

Eich said consent is key.

“People don’t like (being tracked). They think, ‘I feel like some creeper is stalking me. I feel abused’,” he said.


EU pledges to stay green in virus recovery

Updated 29 May 2020

EU pledges to stay green in virus recovery

  • To help economies from the 27-nation bloc bounce back as quick as possible

BRUSSELS: The European Commission pledged on Thursday to stay away from fossil-fueled projects in its coronavirus recovery strategy, and to stick to its target of making Europe the first climate neutral continent by the middle of the century, but environmental groups said they were unimpressed.

To weather the deep recession triggered by the pandemic, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has proposed a €1.85 trillion ($2 trillion) package consisting of a revised long-term budget and a recovery fund, with 25 percent of the funding set aside for climate action.

To help economies from the 27-nation bloc bounce back as quick as possible, the EU’s executive arm wants to increase a €7.5-billion ($8.25 billion) fund presented earlier this year that was part of an investment plan aiming at making the continent more environmentally friendly.

Under the commission’s new plan, which requires the approval of member states, the mechanism will be expanded to €40 billion ($44 billion) and is expected to generate another €150 billion in public and private investment. The money is designed to help coal-dependent countries weather the costs of moving away from fossil fuels.

Environmental group WWF acknowledged the commission’s efforts but expressed fears the money could go to “harmful activities such as fossil fuels or building new airports and motorways.”

“It can’t be used to move from coal to coal,” Frans Timmermans, the commission executive vice president in charge the European Green Deal, responded on Thursday. “It is unthinkable that support will be given to go from coal to coal. That is how we are going to approach the issue. That’s the only way you can ensure you actually do not harm.”

Timmermans conceded, however, that projects involving fossil fuels could sometimes be necessary, especially the use of natural gas to help move away from coal.

The commission also wants to dedicate an extra €15 billion ($16.5 billion) to an agricultural fund supporting rural areas in their transition toward a greener model.

Von der Leyen, who took office last year, has made the fight against climate change the priority of her term. Timmermans insisted that her goal to make Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 remained unchanged, confirming that upgraded targets for the 2030 horizon would be presented by September.

Reacting to the executive arm’s recovery plans, Greenpeace lashed out at a project it described as “contradictory at best and damaging at worst,” accusing the commission of sticking to a growth-driven mentality detrimental to the environment.

“The plan includes several eye-catching green `options,’ including home renovation schemes, taxes on single-use plastic waste and the revenues of digital giants like Google and Facebook. But it does not solve the problem of existing support for gas, oil, coal, and industrial farming — some of the main drivers of a mounting climate and environmental emergency,” Greenpeace said.

“The plan also fails to set strict social or green conditions on access to funding for polluters like airlines or carmakers.”

Timmermans said the EU would keep investing in the development of emission-free public transportation, and promoting clean private transport through the EU budget.