Stalking his digital shadow

Stalking his digital shadow

This formidable mechanism has given rise to digital giants. With laudable intentions at first sight. If the customer is king, then it is necessary to know the details of his existence to serve him best. The development of IT tools makes it possible to automate the procedure.

Need for transparency

“I don't mind the data economy per se, companies can try to make money from tracing. They also need this information to improve their service such as their mobile application. These are admissible arguments but they must act with transparency, ”said Laurent Fasnacht, employee of a company specializing in cryptography and participating in the Le Temps project. He approached many companies, “especially local players”.

As citizens' concern grows with the pace of privacy scandals, companies are stepping up their efforts to display their good faith. They choose slogans and formulas that reassure the use of personal information, while emphasizing the benefits of personalization.

Screenshot of Swisscom's General Data Protection Statement

“Data protection is a matter of trust, and your trust is important to us,” says Swisscom. "Learn how to control the ads shown to you so they're more useful to you," encourages Facebook. “Public transport companies use your personal data to offer you added value throughout the mobility chain,” say SBB. This tone is also found in the answers of several companies to our questions, very often to evade delicate requests.

Mobile power

The rise of social networks, since the 2010s, which make it possible to associate behaviors with a specific profile, but also the use of smartphones at any age have marked a turning point. Having become the main tool for consulting digital platforms, the mobile phone allows unprecedented tracking. Innocuous services – listening to music, games for children – are accompanied by invisible tracers that collect data for marketing companies. “We conducted a survey of 6,000 children's games: 10% collected and transmitted the IMEI number, or the unique identification number of the telephone”, notes Joel Reardon, researcher in information technology at the University of Calgary, in Canada. Paul-Olivier Dehaye has thus observed that a weather application delivers to Amobee, a data reseller, a rate of “probability that the user has bladder problems”.

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Traquer son ombre numérique

“Data resellers offer app publishers the possibility of integrating codes that collect information such as MAC addresses [unique identifier assigned to devices], connections to wifi access points, or even GPS coordinates when it is is possible,” says Joel Reardon. This data is notably resold to chain stores, which can thus analyze how long customers spend in their businesses.

Consent fatigue

Result: many companies find themselves managing a mass of data that is beyond them, without enacting appropriate rules to respect the privacy of their customers from the outset. Data resale networks are reaching dizzying proportions. Jessica Pidoux, participant in the experiment and doctoral student in digital humanities at EPFL, explores this universe in her thesis on the metrics of dating sites. Example with Grindr. The application is a partner of the advertising agency MoPub, itself linked to the gigantic AppNexus network. In total, using this service amounts to providing data to no less than 4259 third-party companies.

In this ecosystem, the user can only lose control. Specialists give a name to this helplessness in the face of illegible general conditions: consent fatigue. “Consent forms should be made clearer to get an idea of ​​the level of engagement and data sharing. Very often, these are documents three kilometers long, ”says Jean-Marc Vandel, computer engineer participating in our experiment and co-president of the Vaudois Pirate Party, committed to the question of digital freedoms.

The more detailed these data are, the more they allow targeted distribution of advertisements. Until you reach manipulation. The Cambridge Analytica case, which broke in 2018, exposed abusive practices on an inconceivable scale: this British company, which specializes in large-scale data analysis, was able to siphon information from millions of Facebook profiles. It claimed to be able to reconstruct psychological profiles to target each user with political advertisements that best meet their expectations. The effectiveness of his manipulation tool remains controversial, but he is said to have helped Donald Trump win in 2016 and Brexit.

Cambridge Analytica went bankrupt in 2018, but many companies are offering profiles for sale in the millions. On a smaller scale, companies rely on our data to label us and better target their campaigns. In theory, data collection and processing should be “recognizable to the data subject,” according to Swiss data protection law.