In search of hidden data – Libération

Cloning, genome sequencing, personalized medicine, data… Technologies are disrupting our lives and societies.The fourteenth edition of the European Forum on Bioethics, in partnership with Liberation, will have the theme “Artificial Intelligence and Us.” In anticipation of the event, from February 7th to 10th in Strasbourg, Liberation will publish in this dossier a series of articles on the topics covered.

It is an invisible substance that escapes us and circulates freely, unbeknownst to our clicks and our eyes. Each of us produces it daily, in increasing quantities, without knowing or controlling its destiny. Others do it for us, massively and for their benefit. One such case: the voracious Facebook, uncovered by a recent study by the American association Consumer Reports, published in January 2024. For each user, it calculated, Facebook receives data from… an average of 2,230 companies.

And what if this great bartering of our digital lives, which shapes (and guides) our wanderings on Google, Netflix, Uber, and other Tinder, was not inevitable? What if we took control of our data? It is precisely to wage this battle that PersonalData.IO was formed in 2018. Founded in Geneva by the Belgian mathematician Paul-Olivier Dehaye, one of the experts behind the Cambridge Analytica scandal (a vast data leak involving Facebook), this collective of European experts and activists strives, relying on civil society partners and allies (educators, journalists, associations, unions, etc.), to alert and empower citizens against the intense organized predation on their data.

“Algorithms feed on who we are”

This fierce battle for “digital self-determination” involves two main channels, explains Paul-Olivier Dehaye: “Asserting our individual rights over personal data [in short, enforcing the GDPR, ed.] but also and above all, making these data collectively useful.” To achieve this, PersonalData relies on a multidisciplinary team, including a professor in information systems and information services, a doctor of law, a data scientist, a socio-educational mediator, and a lawyer and data protection officer (DPO).

For these data activists, the subject is indeed political. “Algorithms feed on who we are, but also on our context: what we read and consume, where we go, if we are vaccinated or not, if we have exercised this week and if so, how many times, etc. This context gives many actors, commercial but also state, the power to say ‘look here, buy this, read this,'” deciphers Jessica Pidoux, a digital sociologist, known in particular for her illuminating work on the algorithms of dating apps, and director of the collective. “Personal data, summarizes Paul-Olivier Dehaye, it is a constant microcession of power over oneself. And it is on this distribution of power that we want to act.”

“A way to lift the veil on the attention economy”

The first target audience, therefore, is citizens. Retrieving their data being a challenge for neophytes, PersonalData has created tutorials, as well as a tool that formalizes requests on our behalf. “Hello dear data controller of Liberation /Google /LinkedIn”, begins the pre-filled email for us by the tool, that only needs to be sent. However, for those who receive their data, it is important to know how to interpret it… “These are compiled in a file that is unreadable, impossible to understand as is,” testifies Jessica Pidoux. The engineers at PersonalData have therefore built the suitable tool: “An online and free tool that allows you to view and understand your data, through statistical diagrams.” The user uploads their file to the platform and discovers how their data has been used. Advertising bombardment, misinformation, geolocation, targeting by interests, actors who have shared your data… “It’s a way to lift the veil on the attention economy, and to understand how AI digests and influences our behavior,” explains the sociologist. Another tool, Dating Privacy, offers users to upload their Tinder data, to analyze them and better understand the app’s functioning. In order to raise awareness among young people, the collective has also developed workshops dedicated to 18-25 year olds led by specialized trainers in Paris, Geneva, or Brussels.

However, the ambition of PersonalData goes beyond simply retrieving and analyzing individual data. “The next step is to create, through participatory science, new models, collective, democratic, for data governance,” emphasizes Jessica Pidoux; “because if platforms innovate thanks to our data, why not us? “Defending our rights, improving our healthcare or mobility systems… if we mutualize them, our data have the power to do much more than pay for Mark Zuckerberg’s fourth island in Hawaii,” concludes Paul-Olivier Dehaye, who himself co-finances the association, thanks in particular to Hestia.ia, the company specializing in AI strategy and data management that he founded in 2021.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *