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Privacy experts slam UK's 'disastrous' failure to tackle unlawful adtech

Natasha Lomas
Berlin, Germany - February 12: Symbolic photo on the subject of data security on the smartphone. Hands are typing on a smartphone on February 12, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

The UK's data protection regulator has been slammed by privacy experts for once again failing to take enforcement action over systematic breaches of the law linked to behaviorally targeted ads -- despite warning last summer that the adtech industry is out of control.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has also previously admitted it suspects the real-time bidding (RTB) system involved in some programmatic online advertising to be unlawfully processing people's sensitive information. But rather than take any enforcement against companies it suspects of law breaches it has today issued another mildly worded blog post -- in which it frames what it admits is a "systemic problem" as fixable via (yet more) industry-led "reform".

Yet it's exactly such industry-led self-regulation that's created the unlawful adtech mess in the first place, data protection experts warn.

The pervasive profiling of Internet users by the adtech 'data industrial complex' has been coming under wider scrutiny by lawmakers and civic society in recent years -- with sweeping concerns being raised in parliaments around the world that individually targeted ads provide a conduit for discrimination, exploit the vulnerable, accelerate misinformation and undermine democratic processes as a consequence of platform asymmetries and the lack of transparency around how ads are targeted.

In Europe, which has a comprehensive framework of data protection rights, the core privacy complaint is that these creepy individually targeted ads rely on a systemic violation of people's privacy from what amounts to industry-wide, Internet-enabled mass surveillance -- which also risks the security of people's data at vast scale.

It's now almost a year and a half since the ICO was the recipient of a major complaint into RTB -- filed by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group; and Dr Michael Veale, a data and policy lecturer at University College London -- laying out what the complainants described then as “wide-scale and systemic” breaches of Europe’s data protection regime.

The complaint -- which has also been filed with other EU data protection agencies -- agues that the systematic broadcasting of people's personal data to bidders in the adtech chain is inherently insecure and thereby contravenes Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which stipulates that personal data be processed “in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data”.

The regulation also requires data processors to have a valid legal basis for processing people's information in the first place -- and RTB fails that test, per privacy experts -- either if 'consent' is claimed (given the sheer number of entities and volumes of data being passed around, which means it's not credible to achieve GDPR's 'informed, specific and freely given' threshold for consent to be valid); or 'legitimate interests' -- which requires data processors carry out a number of balancing assessment tests to demonstrate it does actually apply.

"We have reviewed a number of justifications for the use of legitimate interests as the lawful basis for the processing of personal data in RTB. Our current view is that the justification offered by organisations is insufficient," writes Simon McDougall, the ICO's executive director of technology and innovation, developing a warning over the industry's rampant misuse of legitimate interests to try to pass off RTB's unlawful data processing as legit.

The ICO also isn't exactly happy about what it's found adtech doing on the Data Protection Impact Assessment front -- saying, in so many words, that it's come across widespread industry failure to actually, er, assess impacts.

"The Data Protection Impact Assessments we have seen have been generally immature, lack appropriate detail, and do not follow the ICO’s recommended steps to assess the risk to the rights and freedoms of the individual," writes McDougall.

"We have also seen examples of basic data protection controls around security, data retention and data sharing being insufficient," he adds.

Yet -- again -- despite fresh admissions of adtech's lawfulness problem the regulator is choosing more stale inaction.

In the blog post McDougall does not rule out taking "formal" action at some point -- but there's only a vague suggestion of such activity being possible, and zero timeline for "develop[ing] an appropriate regulatory response", as he puts it. (His preferred 'E' word in the blog is 'engagement'; you'll only find the word 'enforcement' in the footer link on the ICO's website.)

"We will continue to investigate RTB. While it is too soon to speculate on the outcome of that investigation, given our understanding of the lack of maturity in some parts of this industry we anticipate it may be necessary to take formal regulatory action and will continue to progress our work on that basis," he adds.

McDougall also trumpets some incremental industry fiddling -- such as trade bodies agreeing to update their guidance -- as somehow relevant to turning the tanker in a fundamentally broken system.

(Trade body the Internet Advertising Bureau's UK branch has responded to developments with an upbeat note from its head of policy and regulatory affairs, Christie Dennehy-Neil, who lauds the ICO's engagement as "a constructive process", claiming: "We have made good progress" -- before going on to urge its members and the wider industry to implement "the actions outlined in our response to the ICO" and "deliver meaningful change". The statement climaxes with: "We look forward to continuing to engage with the ICO as this process develops.”)

McDougall also points to Google removing content categories from its RTB platform from next month (a move it announced months back, in November) as an important development; and seizes on the tech giant's recent announcement of a proposal to phase out support for third party cookies within the next two years as 'encouraging'.

Privacy experts have responded with facepalmed outrage to yet another can-kicking exercise by the UK regulator -- warning that cosmetic tweaks to adtech won't fix a system that's designed to feast off an unlawful and inherently insecure high velocity background trading of Internet users' personal data.

"When an industry is premised and profiting from clear and entrenched illegality that breach individuals' fundamental rights, engagement is not a suitable remedy," said UCL's Veale in a statement. "The ICO cannot continue to look back at its past precedents for enforcement action, because it is exactly that timid approach that has led us to where we are now."

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The trio behind the RTB complaints (which includes Veale) have also issued a scathing collective response to more "regulatory ambivalence" -- denouncing the lack of any "substantive action to end the largest data breach ever recorded in the UK".

"The 'Real-Time Bidding' data breach at the heart of RTB market exposes every person in the UK to mass profiling, and the attendant risks of manipulation and discrimination," they warn. "Regulatory ambivalence cannot continue. The longer this data breach festers, the deeper the rot sets in and the further our data gets exploited. This must end. We are considering all options to put an end to the systemic breach, including direct challenges to the controllers and judicial oversight of the ICO."

Wolfie Christl, a privacy researcher who focuses on adtech -- including contributing to a recent study looking at how extensively popular apps are sharing user data with advertisers -- dubbed the ICO's response "disastrous".

"Last summer the ICO stated in their report that millions of people were affected by thousands of companies' GDPR violations. I was sceptical when they announced they would give the industry six more months without enforcing the law. My impression is they are trying to find a way to impose cosmetic changes and keep the data industry happy rather than acting on their own findings and putting an end to the ubiquitous data misuse in today's digital marketing, which should have happened years ago. The ICO seems to prioritize appeasing the industry over the rights of data subjects, and this is disastrous," he told us.

"The way data-driven online marketing currently works is illegal at scale and it needs to be stopped from happening," Christl added. "Each day EU data protection authorities allow these practices to continue further violates people's rights and freedoms and perpetuates a toxic digital economy.

"This undermines the GDPR and generally trust in tech, perpetuates legal uncertainty for businesses, and punishes companies who comply and create privacy-respecting services and business models.

"Twenty months after the GDPR came into full force, it is still not enforced in major areas. We still see large-scale misuse of personal information all over the digital world. There is no GDPR enforcement against the tech giants and there is no enforcement against thousands of data companies beyond the large platforms. It seems that data protection authorities across the EU are either not able -- or not willing -- to stop many kinds of GDPR violations conducted for business purposes. We won't see any change without massive fines and data processing bans. EU member states and the EU Commission must act."