Irish civil liberties group accuses digital ad industry of major data breach

Irish civil liberties group accuses digital ad industry of major data breach

Real time bidding is the process by which an individual is targeted with specific advertising while browsing online, with those ads tailored to the person specifically using a profile that has been created by virtue of their browsing habits and history.

An Irish civil liberties group has launched a European legal action against the manner in which online advertising and personal data gathering functions.

The suit has been taken against the American-based Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the preeminent representative organisation for online advertisers globally, which counts Facebook and Google among its members, and other online advertising vendors.

The action has been taken by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), whose senior fellow Dr Johnny Ryan is a sharp critic of the online advertising industry and the manner in which it operates, in particular the system of real time bidding.

The suit, lodged in court in Hamburg, is based on the ICCL’s argument that no one has appropriately consented to their data being shared in that manner.

'Secret dossiers'

The ICCL said it had lodged “hundreds of pages” of evidence, including the “industry rulebook for building secret dossiers” on people.

Dr Ryan has previously complained to the Irish Data Protection Commission about RTB, which led to the commission launching an own-volition inquiry into the process, a probe which has yet to conclude.

Real time bidding is the process by which an individual is targeted with specific advertising while browsing online, with those ads tailored to the person specifically using a profile that has been created by virtue of their browsing habits and history.

Ads are created via billions of real-time auctions which see advertisers bidding to land their product in front of someone whose profile says is likely to be interested in it. 

Regarding the ICCL’s current suit, Dr Ryan said: “These secret dossiers about you – based on what you think is private – could prompt an algorithm to remove you from the shortlist for your dream job. A retailer might use the data to single you out for a higher price online. A political group might micro-target you with personalised disinformation.”

An IAB spokesperson said: "We have not been served with any documents in the case. We will review the allegations in conjunction with our legal advisers and will respond in due course, if appropriate."

Dr Ryan said the IAB “sets the rules that govern Google and Facebook and the entire online advertising industry”, adding the new lawsuit will, in his opinion, “force the online advertising industry to stop tracking everyone online”.

'Inaction by GDPR enforcers'

He added the action had come “after three years of inaction by GDPR enforcers”.

Real time bidding is enormously lucrative, with Google’s ad exchange alone generating revenue in the region of €20bn in just three months in 2018.

Most of the profiling which precedes online advertising auctions follows templates produced by the IAB.

Those templates can allegedly tell where someone lives, as well as other personal information such as age, hobbies and interests and even health issues.

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