State is foolishly letting children sign away their data rights
Irish politicians see tech giants as job announcement photo-ops, not threats
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: The Taoiseach was star-struck and raised none of social media’s controversies with him.
Research shows 52 per cent of Irish people reading about the Cambridge Analytica data scandal learned of it through social media. It’s likely they also expressed their outrage about the data breach on a platform. Their activity on Facebook, Google and elsewhere again providing valuable information on the thoughts and traits of citizens that businesses and political forces are hungry for. There is no escape online. Data is the new oil, Facebook and Google its barons. They’re already more powerful than nations, and growing.
Two billion people are active on Facebook. Last year Google reached the two billion mark on its own Android operating system alone. Like every tech monolith, these empires were not built by force, but were enabled by those of us who sign up to allow them harvest our data. Ireland is more complicit than most as we let them grow more powerful through tax avoidance and light regulation.
The expose of Cambridge Analytica revealed how little protection Facebook afforded our data and how democracy is undermined if it’s used illegally. However, people have also begun to realise just how much data these firms hold on us legally. Waterford web developer Dylan Curran downloaded his Google data and wrote about it in a Twitter thread that went viral. He said his file was roughly three million word documents.
He discovered that with indefinite range, Google stores your location, your emails, your search history, every YouTube video you’ve ever watched, what time you go to sleep, your photos, calendar appointments, who you’re in contact with, the files you download, the games you play, the apps you use, what you’re listening to and even documents and files you deleted years ago. His file was one decade-long digital footprint.
British Facebook user Dylan McKay retrieved his data logs from the platform and found it contained “the metadata of every cellular call I’ve ever made, including time and duration” and “metadata about every text message I’ve ever received or sent”. It’s what we’ve signed up for and as we have found, it’s open to benign uses like advertising or nefarious ones, like manipulating voters with false information.
In recent months, EU member states have been enacting laws on the digital age of consent. This refers to the age from which it is legal for any online firm to hold data gathered from minors. The EU set an age range of 13-16. France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany have opted for 16 but after intense lobbying by big firms on the General Data Protection Regulation, including Facebook, Ireland chose 13.
Today’s youngest teenagers will soon be legally entering contracts to allow social media, gaming and other companies harvest their data without the consent or knowledge of their parent or guardian. These are the same firms that have proven to be incapable of protecting data. Young children, who aren’t allowed go on a school trip or see a GP without parental consent, will become like adults, agreeing to terms and conditions they couldn’t possibly understand.
Today’s firms, and others yet to exist, will have precise data about their lives for a full five years before they can even register to vote. Based on a few likes, software can determine sexual orientation, household income, race, gender, left-wing/right-wing views down to whether their partner is likely to be male or female, whether they came from a broken home and assess their vulnerability to substance abuse. It’s gold dust for those hoping to swing tight votes now and in the future. There has been no outrage in the Dáil or Seanad on the age of consent, because, as Cambridge Analytica was fond of boasting, politicians don’t understand the technology.
Irish politicians only see tech giants as job announcement photo-ops. The Taoiseach was star-struck meeting Mark Zuckerberg last November and raised none of its controversies with him. Leo Varadkar is not just a fan of social media, he’s become an excellent client. During Enda Kenny’s last full year in charge, not a cent was spent on social media advertising. Under Varadkar’s first six months, the Government spent over €22,000 across Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Project 2040 has since increased the spend. Official Ireland sees no harm in committing teenagers to a data farm for life.
Now imagine it’s 2048. The new Taoiseach has turned 43. Out there, in private hands, are 30 years of data on their life and times that the taoiseach can’t erase. After all, they legally signed off on it when they were 13 years old, because their predecessor was lobbied by the very companies who’ve been harvesting the data and getting rich on it ever since. Every thought and nuance of their lives as teenagers, the good and the bad, the excruciating and vulnerable moments of their impressionable years.
All stored for good, in giant Irish data centres that politicians cut regulations and ribbons for. At its most innocent, it’s advertising fodder. At more sinister levels, it’s leverage against future attempts to regulate, tax and clamp down. It is vulnerable to misuse, hacking and misrepresentation. Ireland’s new digital age of consent is due to become law on May 25th. Our leaders are signing away the rights, mental health and maybe even the democratic powers of future generations.
Oliver Callan is a writer and satirist