Last year – perhaps more than ever - the world was powered by Big Tech.
Families stayed connected over Whatsapp, Zoom and FaceTime. Rapidly adopted remote working practices allowed businesses to maintain their services without so much as a stutter. The high street shifted online at an unprecedented rate, with retailers of every size finding new ways to sell to their customers.
But the pandemic has also accentuated some of tech’s biggest weaknesses – with many of those coming to the fore in 2021.
Cyber security in bad health
The sudden move to remote working last year sparked concerns that cyber-criminals would take advantage of ill-prepared networks. But it wasn't until this year that the country felt the very real impact of a digital attack.
In May the Health Service Executive announced it had suffered a "significant" and "sophisticated" ransomware attack, with criminals blocking access to its systems.
It led the HSE to effectively go offline, with hospitals reverting to old-fashioned paper systems. That caused a significant slowdown in its operations, leading to delays and cancelled appointments.
A subsequent report found that the attack had its origins in a breach eight weeks earlier, when a phishing email was opened within the organisation.
The attackers were aided by the "frail" IT system in use in the HSE, though the organisation was also found to have missed several opportunities to deal with the problem before the full-blown attack was launched.
Alongside the clinical impact, the attack has also come with a €100m price-tag for the health authority.
And as the year came to a close, it was clear that the problems were far from over, with the Coombe Hospital having to lock down its IT systems in December due to a cyber attack.
But this year also proved that digital attacks are not only a problem for big organisations – with scam texts and phone calls becoming a near-constant nuisance.
Scammers took advantage of everything from the pandemic to Brexit – with messages often focusing on online banking, delivery notifications or even customs fees.
Scammers also deployed an extra level of sophistication, managing to place their fake texts alongside legitimate messages from the likes of AIB and Bank of Ireland.
The devil is in the data for Facebook
But it was an attack of a different kind that sparked a year of controversies for social media giant Facebook.
While all social media platforms have been grappling with the problem of 'Fake News’ for years now, the ‘life or death’ nature of its efforts have been underlined by Covid-19.
And in 2021 the biggest platform of them all faced detailed accusations about its failure to stem the flow of misinformation.
Former employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged that, after the 2020 US Presidential Election, the company had turned off special systems designed to limit misinformation and abuse on its platform.
That, she said, helped to feed into the frenzy of the US Capitol Riots on 6th January.
However Ms Haugen’s claims about Facebook’s problems went far beyond US politics, with the whistleblower alleging the firm had a policy that saw executives sacrifice users in the pursuit of profit.
This, she said, included amplifying hate-filled and violent content because it generated more engagement – and ad revenue. She also accused Facebook of ignoring its own research that younger users were being negatively impacted by their experiences on its apps.
Facebook rejected Ms Haugen’s claims, and said that the documents she had provided as evidence were being taken out of context. It also pointed to steps it has taken to address misinformation and abuse; and protect younger users.
However it wasn’t just its content policy that came under scrutiny this year – with its handling of user data also under a spotlight once again.
That included questions from the Irish Data Protection Commission about the leaking of 533 million users’ information, a potential €36m fine over its processing of personal data, and the scrapping of its controversial facial recognition system.
All of this added an extra layer of toxicity to the Facebook brand – perhaps feeding into its decision in October to change its name to ‘Meta’.
Europe doubles down on Big Tech battle
While Frances Haugen didn’t pull any punches in her criticism of Facebook, she did offer praise to the European Union for its attempts to curb the power of big tech.
And that could be seen most clearly in the financial penalties levied against major firms for alleged breaches of union rules – particularly those relating to its General Data Protection Regulations.
Designed to force companies to handle user data with more care, they came into force in the middle of 2018, but only really began to bite this year.
Alongside its proposed €36m fine of Facebook, the Irish Data Protection Commission levied a record €225m fine on the Irish arm of its Whatsapp messaging service for its breaches of GDPR.
The Irish DPC had originally proposed a €50m fine on the firm, but that was substantially increased following a review by the European Data Protection Board. Whatsapp has opted to challenge the fine – claiming it constitutes "the imposition of a criminal sanction".
Meanwhile Amazon was found to be in breach of GDPR by data protection authorities in Luxembourg, with a €746m fine applied.
The tech conglomerate was also hit with €1.13 billion fine in Italy - this one relating to alleged abuse of its market position.
And with the EU currently progressing a new Digital Services Act and Digital Marketing Act, it’s likely that even more pressure will be brought to bear on big tech firms in the months and years ahead.
But tech’s problems weren’t just digital – as the engine of the entire industry continued to struggle in 2021.
Processor makers first began to face problems in 2020, as rapidly shifting supply chains and an unprecedented spike in demand led to a global shortage of computer chips.
That not only impacted PC, tablet, smartphone and server production – but also entirely separate sectors that have become heavily computerised, like car-makers.
Their problems continued into 2021, forcing major companies to delay and revise down their product launch plans, while also causing a backlog in the European car market.
The problem became so acute that it led to top-level meetings at the White House, with European authorities also trying to find ways to address the challenge.
Both in the EU and the US, officials agreed that there was a need to ramp up regional chip production in order to reduce dependence on Asia.
That should have a positive knock-on effect for Ireland, as it is set to be home to even more of Intel’s chip production in the future, with 1,600 new jobs on their way to its Leixlip campus.
And Ireland is also said to be in the running for a separate Intel-run plant that will produce chips for other companies, though it’s facing stiff competition from other European countries for that prize.
But wherever Intel’s new facility goes, and whatever other chip production is established in Europe or the US, it’s unlikely to do much to help the current shortage crisis.
The complexity and size of chip fabrication facilities means it takes years for new sites to be developed – or for existing sites to dramatically increase output.
That means that it could be some time before supply and demand are balanced once again.
Broadband plan falls behind schedule
And it’ll be years before many Irish households are able to get high-quality broadband, despite the seemingly ambitious plans of the National Broadband Plan – as well as some private operators.
Contracts on the National Broadband Plan – which aims to bring a high-speed connections to more than half a million homes – were signed in 2019.
Last year, there were positives signals coming from the company in charge of the rollout – National Broadband Ireland – and things appeared to be on-track into early 2021.
But as the year wore on, problems began to emerge.
It means that, after 22 months of work, just over 3,300 homes and businesses had been connected to the network by early December.
But the good news for some is that fewer homes and businesses may have to wait for NBI in order to get high-speed broadband, with multiple companies stepping up their own fibre roll-outs.
In April Eir said its fibre-to-the-home service was available to 800,000 premises around the country, and in August it announced plans to expand that to a further 200,000 buildings.
In October Siro – the joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone – announced a €620m expansion to its network that would bring connections to 320,000 more premises.
And then in November, Virgin Media Ireland said it would spend €200m to upgrade its network, meaning its customers would be able to avail of a full-fibre service capable of far higher speeds than before.