Technology

What if we could predict your voice based on your lifestyle?

With a title inspired by Tamagotchi, a game popular in the 90s, the online quiz uses vintage-style pixelated illustrations to allow participants to customize their avatar by adding information about their preferences and gaming habits. (Photo: 123RF)

What if we could guess who you’re voting for based on your favorite brand of coffee, your favorite movie, or the bus you take every morning?

That’s a question that researchers at Laval University’s Department of Leadership in Teaching Digital Social Sciences want to answer by launching a provincial version of the Datagotchi app in partnership with The Canadian Press. The application was opened during the last federal campaign.

With a title inspired by Tamagotchi, a game popular in the 90s, the online quiz uses vintage-style pixelated illustrations to allow participants to customize their avatar by adding information about their preferences and gaming habits.

At the end, the app tries to guess which party we plan to vote for in the provincial elections on October 3rd. If it’s wrong, we can indicate the correct answer, which will improve the algorithm.

Fragmented society

Of course, it is not vegetarian food or a love of hiking that makes us vote for one party or another.

“There is no direct causal relationship between buying products locally and my voice,” explains researcher and app co-author Catherine Ouellet, but “it could be an indicator” of things much deeper.

According to her, “we tend to form groups with people who are similar to us in life, and once we are in a group, a process of social influence arises between its members.” Social groups to which a person belongs, as a rule, have their own subculture, their own aesthetic codes … and their own political ideology. Thus, one becomes the revelation of the other.

“Since the advent of polls in the United States in the 1940s, we realized that the factors that predicted voting were often multiple variables: religion, income, and place of residence,” Ms Ouellet says. This information, combined with basic demographic data such as gender, age, and ethnicity, was more than enough.

However, “beginning in the 80s and 90s we notice a decrease in the predictive power of these variables, she points out, the middle class has become larger and fragmented.”

Data ready to be collected

“Political parties, companies, when they segment, use the same methods as we do” to broadcast targeted advertising on social networks, emphasizes the co-author of the app, Professor Yannick Dufresne, who is also one of the creators of Electoral Compass.

Thus, whether Datagochi’s assessment is accurate or not, it allows him to “roughly understand how analysts perceive you. (…) If we predicted incorrectly, you will still receive this advertisement.”

To explore what each life habit points to, Datagotchi also has a free version called a “sandbox” where Internet users can play with variables and see what affects results.

“We are democratizing the analysis of complex data,” Professor Dufresne points out, saying that he wishes people could “also understand methods that are being used against their will, even without their knowledge.”

Even if you are careful, it is almost impossible to avoid data collection by websites. And if trivial details like the music we download or the yoga classes we watch can reveal our political thinking, then the possibilities are wide.

“Understanding how much information such a variable can provide, allowing someone to predict the intention to vote, allows us to realize certain precautions that we could take,” says one of the app’s creators, Professor Simon Coulomb. Of course, in an increasingly interconnected world, “it’s hard to go about your day-to-day activities without using digital technologies without leaving a trace,” he admits. What he hopes is that “eventually, if people are more aware, there may be some pressure from the governments’ point of view” to introduce more safeguards.

For example, since 2016, the European Union has banned websites from using cookies (also referred to as “cookies”) without obtaining user consent. Individuals can also request the deletion of their personal data held by companies.

Safety

As for the information collected by Datagotchi, it is “an application developed in an academic context,” Ouellet says. We are subject to extremely strict ethical restrictions. The data is anonymized and stored on the secure servers of the Laval University.

The Datagotchi website states that “the data collected is the exclusive property of Université Laval. The University does not, under any circumstances, disclose, share or sell this data to third parties. Datagotchi uses this data for statistical and promotional purposes to improve the user experience of the Datagotchi web application and support its user acquisition efforts.”

The first version of the app, launched during the 2021 federal election, was heavily criticized by computer security organization Crypto.Québec.

At the time of launching the application, the privacy policy had not yet been uploaded to the site, which was quickly corrected.

Crypto.Québec also mentioned the fact that Datagotchi did not have IT security certifications at the time.

However, in 2022, a version of the app successfully passed penetration tests conducted by independent security firm CyberSwat. The report states that “Overall, the security of your Datagotchi application is superior to what we typically find in the market.” The firm identified several small “low” level vulnerabilities that have been patched in subsequent releases.

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