How a French radio station kept hidden files on listeners

By Lou Syrah

For nearly 20 years the privately-owned French radio station Europe 1 kept files and stored information on more than half a million listeners, sometimes with their details accompanied by insulting comments. This was detailed in a 2017 report by the French data watchdog the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) which has remained confidential but which has been seen by Mediapart. As a result of the report the radio station was given an official warning but the matter was never referred to the prosecution authorities, nor did Europe 1 have to pay a fine. Lou Syrah reports.

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Unbeknown to the outside world, for nearly 20 years the privately-owned French radio station Europe 1 kept files on listeners who called its switchboard, sometimes recording details relating to their origin, their health or their presumed sexuality. France's data watchdog the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) discovered the scale of the scandal in 2017 but chose not to make it public. However, Mediapart has seen a copy of the confidential report on the issue.

The investigation by CNIL started on July 7th 2016 when its staff visited the offices of Europe 1 in |Marseille, in southern France where the radio station had temporarily relocated for a major match in the Euro 2016 football tournament between hosts France and Germany.

What attracted the attention of CNIL's inspectors was the radio station's switchboard area. This was where the station's phone operators sifted through the emails and the telephone calls from listeners who dialled the number 3921 to call the station. How were the messages sorted? It was done by “rating” the calls, in others words evaluating the conversation with the caller on a scale ranging from “excellent” to “bad”. It is what is called “listener casting”.

Europe 1's studios on March 14th 2012. © Reuters Europe 1's studios on March 14th 2012. © Reuters
“It's about knowing if the listener's comments are in line with the programme's subject matter,” says one of the operators at the station contacted by Mediapart. “And to be sure there is no aggressivity before going onto the station, for example, and to know if someone expresses themselves in a comprehensible way, if the telephone line is good.”

Armed with this information the staff produce files – one a minute in peak periods – that are recorded in software used internally and which is called 'Chamane'. At that time 'Chamane' was also used by the station's presenters to disconnect a listener if they got out of control. “On our touchscreen there were ten boxes, and by clicking on one box you put the listener on air. By clicking again you took them off,” says a former morning presenter on Europe 1.

This tool attracted the attention of CNIL inspectors during their inspection. For the file did not just contain normal information such as the caller's surname, first name, profession, telephone number or the quality of their diction, it also had details summarised under a box called “comments” which allowed operators to “convey their personal assessment”.

In its report, seen by Mediapart, CNIL points to comments made about some of the callers' health: “Patrice HIV positive”, “No longer alcoholic my arse!”, “off sick from work, cancer treatment”. Or about their presumed ethnic origins or sexual orientation: “Tunisian Jewish accent, insistent and disagreeable”, “Maghreb [editor's note, North African] accent, not always clear, talkative, needs to speak about their cancer”, “he's queer” and “he's a former straight who has become queer”.

More generally the CNIL report notes that “more than 483 files contain comments relating to the listeners' [personal] qualities, such as for example “major dickhead”, “FASCIST!!!”, “the voice of an old faggot!”, “racist and not very nice, compares the Arabs and the Chinese very wittily”, “This SB [son of a bitch] never replies”, “stupid bastard who has already well pissed us off”. CNIL modestly describe these comments as “inappropriate” and “insulting”.

As CNIL points out, it is of course not unlawful to collect information on listeners to the extent that “they have come to speak on the station and the station is looking to determine which interventions would be likely to add value to the content of the programmes”. But this does not mean that the descriptions are appropriate, the watchdog says. This type of “excessive” file is “contrary to the provisions of the [data legislation] of January 6th 1978”, it says.

The law formally bans the gathering without consent of data of a personal nature relating to health or sexual orientation, or relating to racial or ethnic origins and religious persuasion. Breaches of this law risk a fine of up to 1.5 million euros.

Beyond the seriousness of the comments in the files, the author of the CNIL report also highlights the sheer scale of file keeping involved. Since 2002 the software had stored information on 573,315 people, although such data should have been destroyed after two years. How could the radio station have kept personal data on more than half a million people for so long?

“Neither the radio's managements nor the switchboard operators were aware of the preservation of the data,” Europe 1's secretary general Anne Fauconnier said when contacted by Mediapart. “The preservation of the data over a long period stems from a technical error.”

The station and its staff also insist that Europe 1's system of files at no point led to discrimination relating to listeners going on air. However, this raises the question of what, then, the point was of those written assessments.

In any case, another system of file-keeping, older and even more sensitive, enabled Europe 1 to exclude some listeners from the airways on an irregular basis. It is a ghost file for which CNIL seems to have given no authorisation nor received any declaration. It was a file of callers “banned from the station” and it was discovered at the time of the 2016 inspection.

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Lou Syrah est journaliste indépendante. Il s'agit de son premier article pour Mediapart.