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UK Council websites are letting citizens be profiled for ads, study shows

Natasha Lomas

On the same day that a data ethics advisor to the UK government has urged action to regulate online targeting a study conducted by pro-privacy browser Brave has highlighted how Brits are being profiled by the behavioral ad industry when they visit their local Council's website -- perhaps seeking info on local services or guidance about benefits including potentially sensitive information related to addiction services or disabilities.

Brave found that nearly all UK Councils permit at least one company to learn about the behavior of people visiting their sites, finding that a full 409 Councils exposed some visitor data to private companies.

While many large councils (serving 300,000+ people) were found exposing site visitors to what Brave describes as "extensive tracking and data collection by private companies" -- with the worst offenders, London's Enfield and Sheffield City Councils, exposing visitors to 25 data collectors apiece.

Brave argues the findings represent a conservative illustration of how much commercial tracking and profiling of visitors is going on on public sector websites -- a floor, rather than a ceiling -- given it was only studying landing pages of Council sites without any user interaction, and could only pick up known trackers (nor could the study look at how data is passed between tracking and data brokering companies).

Nor is the first such study to warn that public sector websites are infested with for-profit adtech. A report last year by Cookiebot found users of public sector and government websites in the EU being tracked when they performed health-related searches -- including queries related to HIV, mental health, pregnancy, alcoholism and cancer.

Brave's study -- which was carried out using the webxray tool -- found that almost all (98%) of the Councils used Google systems, with the report noting that the tech giant owns all five of the top embedded elements loaded by Council websites, which it suggests gives the company a god-like view of how UK citizens are interacting with their local authorities online.

The analysis also found 198 of the Council websites use the real-time bidding (RTB) form of programmatic online advertising. This is notable because RTB is the subject of a number of data protection complaints across the European Union -- including in the UK, where the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) itself has been warning the adtech industry for more than half a year that its current processes are in breach of data protection laws.

However the UK watchdog has preferred to bark softly in the industry's general direction over its RTB problem, instead of taking any enforcement action -- a response that's been dubbed "disastrous" by privacy campaigners.

One of the smaller RTB players the report highlights -- which calls itself the Council Advertising Network (CAN) -- was found sharing people's data from 34 Council websites with 22 companies, which could then be insecurely broadcasting it on to hundreds or more entities in the bid chain.

Slides from a CAN media pack refer to "budget conscious" direct marketing opportunities via the ability to target visitors to Council websites accessing pages about benefits, child care and free local activities; "disability" marketing opportunities via the ability to target visitors to Council websites accessing pages such as home care, blue badges and community and social services; and "key life stages" marketing  opportunities via the ability to target visitors to Council websites accessing pages related to moving home, having a baby, getting married or losing a loved one.

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Brave's report -- while a clearly stated promotion for its own anti-tracking browser (given it's a commercial player too) -- should be seen in the context of the ICO's ongoing failure to take enforcement action against RTB abuses. It's therefore an attempt to increase pressure on the regulator to act by further illuminating a complex industry which has used a lack of transparency to shield massive rights abuses and continues to benefit from a lack of enforcement of Europe's General Data Protection Regulation.

And a low level of public understanding of how all the pieces in the adtech chain fit together and sum to a dysfunctional whole, where public services are turned against the citizens whose taxes fund them to track and target people for exploitative ads, likely contributes to discouraging sharper regulatory action.

But, as the saying goes, sunlight disinfects.

Asked what steps he would like the regulator to take, Brave's chief policy officer, Dr Johnny Ryan, told TechCrunch: "I want the ICO to use its powers of enforcement to end the UK's largest data breach. That data breach continues, and two years to the day after I first blew the whistle about RTB, Simon McDougall wrote a blog post accepting Google and the IAB's empty gestures as acts of substance. It is time for the ICO to move this over to its enforcement team, and stop wasting time."

We're reached out to the ICO for a response to the report's findings.

Update: The ICO has now sent this statement, attributed to Simon McDougall, its executive director for technology and innovation:

Organisations have to be transparent with people about how they are using sensitive personal data, which is protected by the law.

There are thousands of companies involved in the adtech eco-system and at this stage the issues raised involve the entire industry. We stand ready to deal with the problems but it is a hugely complex area. As a pragmatic regulator, we have a duty to build a thorough and robust case for any regulatory action we may decide to take, and all of this takes time.

We are using the intelligence gathered throughout last year to develop an appropriate regulatory response and we continue to investigate real time bidding. It may be necessary to take formal regulatory action and we will continue to progress our work on that basis.