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There's a lot of money to be made from our data

HOW and why do companies go to such lengths to collect information about our lives? The simple answer is filthy lucre. Lots of it. Google and Facebook, which mine the data we give them for free, are worth a combined €500bn or about four times this country's entire annual economic output. There's a lot of money to be made analysing our data.

Ten years ago, when nobody worried about internet privacy, the Googles and Facebooks of this world seemed to be offering us all a world of fun and all for free. Anybody who used the internet before search engines like Google will remember that it was clunky, awkward and slow.

The advent of Google with its plain white interface and charming cartoons was a revelation. Within a few clicks, we had been seduced into thinking that these technology companies were our friends, generous helpers who were there to make our lives easier at no cost to ourselves.

Today, we have lost our innocent enjoyment and most of us are well aware of the cost we pay.

It was bad enough earlier this year when we heard that eBay was hacked in what may well be the biggest hack we have known. That was the moment that many began to worry.

The personal details of millions of people are now somewhere in cyberspace and have even been offered for sale in a bitcoin auction. What was perhaps worse than the hacking was the knowledge that eBay knew about the data breach for months before ordinary customers were told.

Here in Ireland we have also seen our fair share of breakdowns in data protection and it is getting worse by the year.

Last year, Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes, who polices some of the biggest companies in the world from a small office above a supermarket, dealt with 1,507 data breaches, the highest number ever seen.

That was partly due to a serious breach by the Ennis-based company Loyaltybuild which processed holiday loyalty schemes for SuperValu and Axa as well as a host of other companies.

Other firms that have revealed data included Carphone Warehouse where a trainee employee gave out a customer's home address to two people who claimed to have found her mobile phone and wanted a reward. Electric Ireland was another sinner, after a sales agent called to a former customer's home. All four major mobile phone operators continued to break the law last year, according to the Data Commissioner's annual report.

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The really worrying thing perhaps is that the State was no better.

We know, because the Revenue Commissioners have confirmed that tax officials have been looking up the tax affairs of celebrities and private individuals including former partners. In the health sector, a GP gave a patient's medical records to an insurance company while another doctor's computer system was attacked by so-called 'ransomware' which made it impossible to access their patient files.

Even former Justice Minister Alan Shatter's office in under investigation for breaking the rules after he revealed private information about Mick Wallace on television.

The Data Protection Commissioner is worried about what will happen when new postcodes are introduced in a few months' time and has warned of a "crisis" if public bodies do not protect our information better.

Anybody who thinks this is a temporary phenomenon needs to think again. It seems almost certain that things will get much worse even if we one day learn to protect our privacy again.