Oh la la ! France’s amazing gift to Google: its citizens’ data

Apr 17, 2018
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It’s that time of year when millions of French have to file in their income tax return online. This time, the official website displays an information video. But this tutorial is hosted on Youtube and Google gets its best-ever view of the French population. A matter of digital sovereignty?
 

Online Income Tax Return

 
When it comes to income tax returns, France has slowly migrated from tedious paperwork to, well, tedious online work. This year is the first year when all must use the website (except if you don’t have the internet in your home). Paper time is over. But the content of the website raises questions about digital sovereignty and data protection.
 

A troublesome video

 
To inform users, the e-Filing website (https://www.impots.gouv.fr) hosts a video about the changes that will take place next year. It is a short video but one cannot access the rest of the website until the video has been viewed.
This is when things get problematic: the video is hosted on Google’s YouTube.
 
Every French person that needs to file in their income tax return will, therefore, share pieces of information with Google. Feeling comfy with that?
 
Screen Recording 2018-04-17 at 02.58 PM.gif
 

Lack of means, lack of knowledge or…?

 
Of course, one can only wonder at what led to this decision.
Was it a lack of means?
A sturdy platform is needed to host a compulsory video that will be watched by millions. YouTube does that very well. But don’t we have any alternatives to sending the citizens’ data to the USA?
Maybe it was too costly to develop a platform for this one video so YouTube was the obvious choice. Well, we are talking “Ministry of Finance” here so the logic does feel a little bit off.
 
Was it a lack of knowledge?
Did the designers of the website ignore that watching a YouTube video means sending Google tons of information? What website you visited before, which one you will go to next, your browsing history (thanks Chrome). It’s unlikely they would not know that.
 
Was it a Community Manager’s ego burst?
Yes, the Official Taxes channel on YouTube wasn’t doing so well. Some videos score a mediocre 66 views, few make it above 5000 views. What better way to advertise the channel than post a compulsory video? The incriminated video scores a glorious 4,6 million views in only two weeks. Now that ought to get you a wink from your superior.
 
Or…
Of course, there is another possibility. The one that is on everyone’s mind. Could it have been done on purpose?
Sure, Google is powerful enough to influence governments. But if it were the case here, it’s likely such collusion would have been slightly more discrete.
 

How to get around it

 
Most users discovered the obligation to watch the video after they had landed on the page. Scripts were already triggered.
Numerama found a clever workaround to avoid the video by creating their own script.
We used a secure browser such as Brave and it got rid of the video by blocking its display altogether.
 

What we learn

 
Rather than dwell on the whys and hows, this incident reminds us of how quickly digital sovereignty can revert to being just wishful thinking. To enforce it, it must be the foundation of every action. The French Government has already decided to get its own messaging app to secure information transfer between key officials. Getting their own video hosting platform could also prove a wise move.