How would you define transparency?
Transparency means that the users that use online services can understand which companies collect data from them, which data, what do they used them for and how. Nowadays we are using and producing lots of data and don’t know exactly the purpose of this data collection. The minimum transparency that I consider necessary is that users understand what is happening with their data and most important, what is the purpose of these data.
Do companies really care about transparency?
Lots of companies say that they are transparent because they offer users a lot of options which allows them to configure certain things, but in fact most of these options are hidden and simply give the user a fake sense of security when in fact, companies sometimes don’t use these data to offer targeted ads but they keep collecting data. Sometimes the information given to users is confused, full of technical terms and create, what is worse, a fake sense of security when they are indeed still collecting information from them although it is not used for certain purposes.
I think that the users are not mostly aware about the impact that their data is doing in the internet. For instance, lots of users are Facebook users. In FB you can give information about you: your age, the city where you live, if you are married or not, and maybe we tend to think that Facebook uses this information to target advertisements depending on how we are. But in fact, when an advertiser wants to place an ad in Facebook they can not only select among certain segments, FB also allows them to target people that are travelling, or people that usually travel. In the US, they also allow to target people from certain ethnic group or people which incomes are between scales. This is obviously something that you have not told to Facebook and this is something that it’s being used and lots of users are not aware of this. This is what users really lack of, to understand the ability that companies have to get information from them without being aware of that. Several times companies know more about me than me myself.
Tell us about the DTL Grants program and its projects
Each year we give grants, from 5 to 10 universities. This year we have given 6 grants to research centers to develop tools to let users understand what’s going on with their data. We don’t want to promote works that block the use of data, we want users to be aware about what’s going on. We’ve given grants to prestigious universities such as Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley or prestigious universities in Spain such as Universidad Carlos III.
Through these grants, we want to focus on those areas where we think there’s more lack of transparency. For instance, one of them is focused on mobile apps. Once you install a mobile app, you accept certain permissions and from then on, that app can do whatever it wants with these permissions. If I allow an app to get my location, or connect to internet I would probably think that these will be used for a map application but nothing would avoid that such app could send my location to thousands of places. We have launched several projects aligned with this, to identify what’s really happening once I install a mobile app and see if that personal information is spread to more places than I think. What we’ve found is that this is really taking place with apps such as a flashlight which sends my device ID to eleven different places.
We have also worked a lot in the advertising scope, trying to let users understand how online advertising works. The project from Carlos III university aims to let users understand how much money Facebook gets each time they are watching an ad or every time they click on an ad.
We have also put a lot of emphasis on tracking techniques. Each day there are more online tracking techniques, more sophisticated and with less control for users. Other projects are working to offer tools to let users understand when such techniques are being used and with what purpose, so they can have the chance to know when companies use techniques to know what they are doing. For instance, one of the most common techniques is fingerprinting and we have developed the first online census that analyzes which websites are using these techniques.
In the DTL website (www.datatransparency.org) you can have access to all the information about the projects, source code, the tools that are already available and even the data we are collecting, so any researcher, end user or journalist can have access and see what can be done with them.
Which will be the main topics for the upcoming call for proposals?
We are still detailing the profile of the grants that we are going to launch but we will keep working on the same areas because there is still a lot to be done: the advertising and tracking scope and mobile apps. That would be in my opinion the three main areas where transparency is more needed.