digital marketing | Tracking for the greater good?

Canadian companies that monitor our comings and goings argue that they also serve the government, not just advertisers. But these new partnerships – which took off with the pandemic – lack safeguards, and a House of Commons committee has just ruled. Point in six questions.

Posted at 8:00 AM

Marie-Claude Malbeauf

Marie-Claude Malbeauf

How is tracking our movements socially beneficial?

For example, geomarketing platform Propulso has used geolocation to explain traffic problems. “We can therefore get answers in a few minutes and a few clicks instead of a few weeks,” says its general manager, Mathieu Le Reste.

According to Telus, monitoring population flows even generates “critical” information that could “save the world.”

To verify compliance with health instructions, the Federal Public Health Administration has had access for a year and a half to the travel data of millions of the carrier’s customers.

The department also gained access to the Toronto-based BlueDot outbreak intelligence platform, which is powered by mobile applications, including WeatherMediaowned by the Pelmorex Corporation.

This tool, designed to predict the spread of 150 infectious diseases, predicted the outbreak in Canada and “provided some really important intelligence,” as BlueDot’s CEO testified when questioned by a House of Commons committee.

Jan Kestel, President of Environics Analytics in Toronto concludes, “By constantly talking about what can go wrong, we are overlooking the fact that data can improve our lives….”

Is this tracking putting our privacy at risk?

Not according to Telus and its competitors, their platforms are used to check traffic trends instead of creating individual profiles.

However, concerned MPs clinched the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

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

Data from your cell phone […] Provide information about all the places you go and the people you spend time with. Anne Kavukian, a former privacy commissioner for Ontario, testified that if links and link-creation could be reallocated by the government, that would be very concerning.

According to Federal Commissioner Daniel Terrain, who launched his own investigation — and praised the commission’s report — the danger is real. Therefore, he offered to check whether the Telus information had been identified expertly enough to reduce the risk. He told the commission, but the government refused to let him “look under the hood.”

PHOTO DARRYL DYCK, Canadian Press Archives

Daniel Terrain

Telus VP informs the committee that it never provides real-time information [contrairement à d’autres entreprises]”Because it will increase the risk.”

“We have consulted some of the world’s most reputable professionals to test our systems and ensure that our data cannot be reallocated,” a spokesperson wrote to us.

Are these many follow-ups?

According to the testimony of the Federal Commissioner, the private sector is increasingly providing the government with data.

Telus discloses on its website its collaboration with the Research Council and with the cities of Ottawa and Surrey, British Columbia. It is impossible to know more. “Our agreements typically include confidentiality clauses,” his spokesperson explains.

Environics supplies the Royal Canadian Mint, Canadian blood services and various institutions. “But it is difficult to get permission from governments to indicate their work,” says its president, Jan Kestel.

According to its 2020 annual report, Bell Canada bought the business from Kestle for “Breaking New Frontiers in Advanced Advertising Strategies”.

Sandrine Prom-Tip, Professor of Marketing at UQAM asks: “These companies are in an increasingly hot spot. Are these partnerships with governments their way of trying to reform themselves or delaying stricter legislation?”


Sandrine Prum Tip, Professor of Marketing at UQAM

Should Canadians be able to escape these tracking downs?

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

He added that refusal in some cases is contrary to the public interest.

He believes that the use of non-personal information should be regulated and monitored to avoid “extremely severe risks”. This is not currently the case, while it has “too many” uses, “sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons,” he says.

Professor Pierre Trudel, of the University of Montreal’s Center for Public Law, is of the same opinion. “Betting on consent is completely separate from reality. The real solution is a much stronger framework.”


Pierre Trudel, Professor at the University of Montreal’s Center for Public Law

“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 summoned by the Commission do not believe this.

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

Daniel Weinstock, professor of philosophy at McGill University, emphasized that doing well is not the right approach. “By hiding things and putting the commissioner aside, we are creating looks that have no place and 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 suspicious because Canadians are not convinced that laws will protect them,” his statement on the commission’s report said.

The latter recommends updating the laws in several ways to restore confidence. We must now consider aggregated and de-identified data as personal information, include a ban on its reallocation, under penalty of “significant punishment,” and finally, mandate the federal commissioner “to proactively verify the practices of all-party mobile data providers to ensure they comply with the law.” .

Are the data providers transparent enough?

Telus did not get permission from its customers before entering their data into its platform. To withdraw, they had to do so in writing. However, “No one can claim seriously [qu’ils] “We have learned that their mobility data will be used as is,” Commissioner Daniel Terrain said.

” [Les politiques de confidentialité] It’s long and complicated, and even lawyers find it hard to understand,” so “no one reads it,” he added.

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

“It’s very mysterious,” said computer science professor Sebastian Gambs, an expert on big data ethics at UQAM.

Photo by Oliver Pontebriand, Press Archives

Sébastien Gambs, Big Data Ethics Expert at UQAM

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

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

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

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

For computer science professor Sebastian Gambs, “This withdrawal appears to indicate that Telus is not entirely sure that privacy is respected in its practices.”

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

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