Ad firms share your location and online behavior 747 times a day


Advertisers pay to know your online behavior and location.
Advertisers pay to know your online behavior and location.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Google leads the way among ad tech companies sharing your online behavior and location with advertisers. It happens an average of 747 times a day in the United States and 376 times a day in Europe. That’s according to a new report from a civil liberties group.

Google and others use a process known as real-time bidding to help advertisers target you by behavior and location.

The group behind the report called such sharing “the biggest data breach” in the world.

Report says ad tech firms share online behavior and location 747 times a day in the US

The report, from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, was cited in an extensive TechCrunch article. The article discusses differences between European and American privacy regulations. It also describes timely real-world concerns, like attempts to target women who may seek abortion services.

Regarding real-time bidding, aka RTB, Google and other players in the high-velocity, surveillance-based ad auction system process and pass along people’s data billions of times each day.

“RTB is the biggest data breach ever recorded,”said the Irish organization. “It tracks and shares what people view online and their real-world location 294 billion times in the U.S. and 197 billion times in Europe every day. Europeans and U.S. Internet users’ private data is sent to firms across the globe, including to Russia and China, without any means of controlling what is then done with the data.”

Defining RTB

Many ads you see on websites are booked just before you see them — sometimes just milliseconds beforehand.

Just to give an example, say you go to a website about things to do in a city. And say Google signed a contract to sell ad space on that site. Your visit tells Google of your interest in the city. And your IP address gives the tech giant an idea of your location.

Given those realities, Google’s automated ad-selling software puts out word that it has a number of people like you from your area interested in the city’s tourism. It asks how much advertisers will pay to display an ad to them.

Advertisers interested in the audience enter how much they will pay for ads targeted to various groups. Google responds to the highest number and displays that company’s ad.

Where a privacy issue comes in

What ad tech companies can gather from your browser amounts to more than just your general location and the websites you visit. Rest assured that advertisers don’t know your identity, so that’s not the problem.

In the past, privacy regulators expressed concerns that cookies help collect data on a whole range of websites people visit. Then that data goes into creating a detailed profile. But in some countries, that’s illegal. And in some countries, as noted above, it’s not clear what anyone does with the data.

As the Financial Times noted about a report by regulators:

To gather more data, companies often send browser data to third parties for data enrichment, to be able to build a profile of a person’s potential value to advertisers […]

“The scale of the creation and sharing of personal data profiles in [real-time bidding] appears disproportionate, intrusive and unfair, particularly when in many cases data subjects are unaware that this processing is taking place,” the report said.

Specifically, the report found that companies were illegally collecting and bartering in special category data, which requires the explicit consent of the data subject. This could include a person’s race, sexuality, health status or political opinions.

The data won’t be tied to a particular person, so those involved won’t know your name. But the data can be tied to a profile representing an individual.

Who shares your information?

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties noted that Google dominates use of RTB. And Microsoft is a significant player. The group couldn’t measure RTB usage by Facebook and Amazon, and said its figures are most likely a conservative estimate.

“[T]he figures presented for RTB broadcasts as a low estimate. The industry figures on which we rely do not include Facebook or Amazon RTB broadcasts,” the group said.

The report indicated Google allows 4,698 companies to receive RTB data about people in the United States. Meanwhile, Microsoft may send data to 1,647 companies. Microsoft increased its RTB involvement in December last year when it bought adtech firm Xandr from AT&T.


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