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.


Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

Updated 06 June 2020

Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

  • Suitors wage backstage battle to rescue debt-stricken Canadian circus icon
  • Among the potential bidders is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who fouded the acrobatic troupe in 1984

MONTREAL: Its shows canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an already heavily indebted Cirque du Soleil’s fight for survival has invited an intense backstage battle to try to save the Canadian cultural icon.

High on a list of potential suitors is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who founded the acrobatic troupe in 1984 but later sold it.

“Its revival will have to be done at the right price. And not at all costs,” said the 60-year-old, determined not to see his creation sold to private interests.

The billionaire clown said after “careful consideration,” he decided “with a great team” to pursue a bid, but offered no details.

Under his leadership, the Cirque had set up big tops in more than 300 cities around the world, delighting audiences with contemporary circus acts set to music but without the usual trappings of lions, elephants and bears.

Then the pandemic hit, forcing the company in March to cancel 44 shows worldwide, from Las Vegas to Tel Aviv, Moscow to Melbourne, and lay off 4,679 acrobats and technicians, or 95 percent of its workforce.

Hurtling toward bankruptcy, the global entertainment giant and pride of Canada commissioned a bank in early May to examine its options, including a possible sale.

Meanwhile, shareholders ponied up $50 million in bridge financing for its “short-term liquidity needs.”

Laliberte, the first clown to rocket to the International Space Station in 2009, ceded control of the Cirque for $1 billion in 2015.

It has since fallen into the hands of American investment firm TPG Capital (55 percent stake) and China’s Fosun (25 percent), which also owns Club Med and Thomas Cook travel. The Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ) retains the last 20 percent.

The institutional investor, which manages public pension plans and insurance programs in Quebec, bought Laliberte’s last remaining 10 percent stake in the business in February, just before the pandemic.

Since 2015, the Cirque has embarked on costly acquisitions and renovations of permanent performance halls, while its creative spirit waned, according to critics in the Quebec press.

Meanwhile, it piled on more than $1 billion in debt.

Fearing that the Cirque would be “sold to foreign interests,” the Quebec government recently offered it a conditional loan of $200 million to help relaunch its shows as restrictions on large gatherings start to be eased worldwide.

But the agreement in principle is conditional on the Cirque headquarters remaining in Montreal and the province being allowed to buy US and Chinese stakes in the company at an unspecified time in the future, “at market value” and with “probably a local partner,” said Quebec Minister of the Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon.

“The state does not want to operate the circus, but the circus is too important to Quebec (to leave it to foreigners),” he said.

In addition to Laliberte, other prospective buyers include Quebecor, the telecoms and media giant of tycoon Pierre Karl Peladeau, whose opening lowball bid was outright rejected.

“It is essentially the value and reputation of the brand” that has piqued interest in the company, says Michel Magnan, corporate governance chair at Concordia University in Montreal.

But “as long as there are restrictions on gatherings of people, the future is not very rosy” for the Cirque, he said.

Several challenges await, according to Magnan.

“There were a lot of people working in all of these shows. Where are they now? What are they doing? How are they doing? In what shape are they, what state of mind?” he said.

“The more time passes, the more this expertise risks evaporating.”

Small consolation: The Cirque resumed its performances on Wednesday in Hangzhou, China, five months after a coronavirus outbreak in the city.