Digital Marketing | Getting tracked for the common good?

Canadian companies that monitor our comings and goings argue that it also serves the government, not just advertisers. But these new partnerships – which have taken off with the pandemic – lack safeguards, a House of Commons committee has just ruled. The point in six questions.

Posted at 8:00 a.m.

How is tracking our movements socially useful?

The geomarketing platform Propulso, for example, used geolocation to interpret traffic problems. “We can thus obtain answers in a few minutes and a few clicks rather than in a few weeks”, reports its general manager, Mathieu Le Reste.

According to the Telus site, observing population flows even generates “crucial” information that can “save the world”.

To verify compliance with health instructions, the Federal Public Health accessed for a year and a half the travel data of millions of customers of the telecommunications company.

The Department also accessed Toronto-based BlueDot’s outbreak intelligence platform, which is powered by mobile phone apps, including WeatherMediaowned by Pelmorex.

This tool, designed to anticipate the spread of 150 infectious diseases, has predicted outbreaks in Canada and “provided some really important actionable intelligence,” the BlueDot CEO testified when held to account by a Commons committee.

“By constantly talking about what can go wrong, we lose sight of the fact that data can improve our lives…”, concludes Jan Kestle, president of the Toronto firm Environics Analytics.

Does this tracking put our privacy at risk?

Not according to Telus and its competitors, their platforms being used to scrutinize movement trends rather than to create individual profiles.

Concerned MPs nevertheless seized the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

On May 4, the latter published 22 recommendations on the use of mobility data by the Government of Canada.

“The data from your cell phone […] provide information on all the places you go and the people you hang out with. If they could be re-personalized and links made by the government, that would be extremely troubling,” former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian testified.

According to Federal Commissioner Daniel Therrien, who launched his own investigation – and applauded the committee’s report – the danger is real. He had therefore offered to verify whether Telus’ information was de-identified expertly enough to reduce risk. But the government refused to let him “look under the hood”, he told the committee.

Digital Marketing Getting tracked for the common good


Daniel Therrien

Telus VP told committee she never provides real-time information [contrairement à d’autres entreprises]“because it would increase the risk”.

“We have consulted with some of the most reputable specialists in the world to put our systems to the test and ensure that our data cannot be re-personalized,” a spokesperson also wrote to us.

Are these follow-ups numerous?

According to the testimony of the federal commissioner, the private sector is increasingly supplying the government with data.

Telus reveals on its site to have collaborated with a Research Council and with the cities of Ottawa and Surrey, in British Columbia. Impossible to find out more. “Our agreements usually contain confidentiality clauses,” explains his spokesperson.

Environics supplies the Royal Canadian Mint, Canadian Blood Services and various foundations. “But it’s hard to get permission from governments to cite their work,” says its chair, Jan Kestle.

According to its 2020 annual report, Bell Canada purchased the business from Mme Kestle in order to “open new perspectives for advanced advertising strategies”.

Sandrine Prom Tep, professor of marketing at UQAM, wonders: “These companies are increasingly in the hot seat. Are these partnerships with governments their way of trying to redeem themselves or delay tougher legislation? »

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Sandrine Prom Tep, professor of marketing at UQAM

Should Canadians be able to escape these trackings?

“It is unrealistic, in today’s modern world, to expect that all commercial or government uses of a customer’s data will be subject to consent,” testified the federal commissioner.

In some cases, he added, a refusal would even go against the public interest.

The use of depersonalized information must, however, be regulated and monitored to avoid “very serious risks”, he believes. This is not currently the case, while an “extremely large number” of uses are made of it, “sometimes for good, sometimes for bad reasons”, he says.

Professor Pierre Trudel, from the Public Law Center of the University of Montreal, is of the same opinion. “Betting on consent is totally disconnected from reality. The real solution is a much stronger frame. »

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Pierre Trudel, professor at the Public Law Center of the University of Montreal

“Big data is a collective resource. They cannot continue to be treated as assets of unaccountable organizations. »

Does the government’s approach inspire confidence?

The majority of witnesses called by the committee think not.

“How can the government be trusted when it sets aside the main institution that Parliament created to ensure that the privacy of Canadians is protected? asked ex-journalist and ex-Quebec MP Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, who has become a lecturer on ethics.

Acting on the sly is not the right approach, confirmed Daniel Weinstock, professor of philosophy at McGill University. “By hiding things and setting aside the commissioner, we create appearances that have no place and which tend to feed polarization” and create false scandals, he said.

The federal commissioner assesses the damage. “Even socially beneficial uses of data are viewed as suspect because Canadians are not convinced that the laws will protect them,” his statement on the committee’s report said.

The latter recommends that the laws be modernized in several ways to restore confidence. We should now consider de-identified and aggregated data as personal information, insert a ban on re-personalizing it, under pain of a “substantial penalty”, then, finally, authorize the federal commissioner to “proactively verify the practices of all third-party mobile data providers to ensure they are complying with the law.

Are the data providers transparent enough?

Telus did not obtain permission from its customers before injecting their data into its platform. To withdraw, they had to do so in writing. However, “no one can seriously claim [qu’ils] knew that their mobility data would be used as it was,” said Commissioner Daniel Therrien.

” [Les politiques de confidentialité] are long, complicated, and even lawyers have trouble understanding them,” so “no one reads them,” he added.

Understanding what Telus does with its depersonalized data is indeed difficult. The information displayed on its site is scattered and unclear. It reads, for example, that artificial intelligence makes it possible to obtain “signals”, which can “be enriched with[autres] signals from other industry partners.

“It’s very vague,” said computer science professor Sébastien Gambs, an expert in massive data ethics at UQAM.

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Sébastien Gambs, expert in big data ethics at UQAM

“No, it’s not within reach of the average citizen, it’s very black box,” adds law professor Pierre Trudel.

In response to our requests for clarification, Telus wrote to us that its de-identified and aggregated location data “cannot be used for targeted advertising”, but “may be useful to third parties in the development of a Marketing strategy “.

This winter, his site mentioned his participation in a platform called Trusted Signals, without further explanation. According to our research, various industries exchange “meaningful information” about their customers there in order to enrich their own data.

“As of last year, Telus is no longer part of [cet] ecosystem,” says its spokesperson.

For computer science professor Sébastien Gambs, “this withdrawal seems to indicate that Telus is not very sure about respecting privacy in its practices”.

In August, Alberta’s privacy commissioner found the company was in violation of the law because its MyCare virtual care app recorded too much information, used facial recognition without warning, and displayed a “long, unclear” privacy policy that “included material inaccurate information.”

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Digital Marketing | Getting tracked for the common good?

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