Too Personal: Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Not Satisfied with How Targeted Ads Work

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Digital ads are a little too personal for the taste of Canada’s privacy commissioner.

Online Behavioural Advertising involves tracking consumers’ online activities, across sites and over time, in order to deliver advertisements targeted to the consumers’ apparent interests. Behavioural advertisers often use sophisticated algorithms to analyze web histories, build detailed personal profiles of users, and assign them to various interest categories.

In December, 2011, The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) issued guidelines to help the various organizations involved in OBA ensure that their practices are fair, transparent, and in accordance with PIPEDA.

In a new report, the commissioner highlights the key:

Any collection or use of an individual’s web browsing activity must be done with that person’s knowledge and consent. Therefore, if an individual is not able to decline the tracking and targeting using an opt-out mechanism because there is no viable possibility for them to exert control over the technology used, or if doing so renders a service unusable, then organizations should not be employing that type of technology for online behavioural advertising purposes.

And the issue:

Previous observations of major websites and the ads they contain suggested that, while ads are often tailored based on past web activities, there may be little notice of OBA practices and no easy ability to opt out.

“Using simple testing methods, we were able to see that OBA is being used on just over half of the websites used for the research,” Canada’s privacy watchdog concluded in its report. “We observed multiple examples where ads were targeted based on prior online activities that were related to sensitive topics without opt-in consent. We found that the procedures for opting out of OBA were often unsatisfactory.”

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