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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 29

Will online privacy make a comeback in 2020?

23:15 | 8 January

Last year was a landmark for online privacy in many ways, with something of a consensus emerging that consumers deserve protection from the companies that sell their attention and behavior for profit.

The debate now is largely around how to regulate platforms, not whether it needs to happen.

The consensus among key legislators acknowledges that privacy is not just of benefit to individuals but can be likened to public health; a level of protection afforded to each of us helps inoculate democratic societies from manipulation by vested and vicious interests.

The fact that human rights are being systematically abused at population-scale because of the pervasive profiling of Internet users — a surveillance business that’s dominated in the West by tech giants Facebook and Google, and the adtech and data broker industry which works to feed them — was the subject of an Amnesty International report in November 2019 that urges legislators to take a human rights-based approach to setting rules for Internet companies.

“It is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end,” the charity predicted.

Democracy disrupted

The dystopian outgrowth of surveillance capitalism was certainly in awful evidence in 2019, with elections around the world attacked at cheap scale by malicious propaganda that relies on adtech platforms’ targeting tools to hijack and skew public debate, while the chaos agents themselves are shielded from democratic view.

Platform algorithms are also still encouraging Internet eyeballs towards polarized and extremist views by feeding a radicalized, data-driven diet that panders to prejudices in the name of maintaining engagement — despite plenty of raised voices calling out the programmed antisocial behavior. So what tweaks there have been still look like fiddling round the edges of an existential problem.

Worse still, vulnerable groups remain at the mercy of online hate speech which platforms not only can’t (or won’t) weed out, but whose algorithms often seem to deliberately choose to amplify — the technology itself being complicit in whipping up violence against minorities. It’s social division as a profit-turning service.

The outrage-loving tilt of these attention-hogging adtech giants has also continued directly influencing political campaigning in the West this year — with cynical attempts to steal votes by shamelessly platforming and amplifying misinformation.

From the Trump tweet-bomb we now see full-blown digital disops underpinning entire election campaigns, such as the UK Conservative Party’s strategy in the 2019 winter General Election, which featured doctored videos seeded to social media and keyword targeted attack ads pointing to outright online fakes in a bid to hack voters’ opinions.

Political microtargeting divides the electorate as a strategy to conquer the poll. The problem is it’s inherently anti-democratic.

No wonder, then, that repeat calls to beef up digital campaigning rules and properly protect voters’ data have so far fallen on deaf ears. The political parties all have their hands in the voter data cookie-jar. Yet it’s elected politicians whom we rely upon to update the law. This remains a grave problem for democracies going into 2020 — and a looming U.S. presidential election.

So it’s been a year when, even with rising awareness of the societal cost of letting platforms suck up everyone’s data and repurpose it to sell population-scale manipulation, not much has actually changed. Certainly not enough.

Yet looking ahead there are signs the writing is on the wall for the ‘data industrial complex’ — or at least that change is coming. Privacy can make a comeback.

Adtech under attack

Developments in late 2019 such as Twitter banning all political ads and Google shrinking how political advertisers can microtarget Internet users are notable steps — even as they don’t go far enough.

But it’s also a relatively short hop from banning microtargeting sometimes to banning profiling for ad targeting entirely.

Alternative online ad models (contextual targeting) are proven and profitable — just ask search engine DuckDuckGo . While the ad industry gospel that only behavioral targeting will do now has academic critics who suggest it offer far less uplift than claimed, even as — in Europe — scores of data protection complaints underline the high individual cost of maintaining the status quo.

Startups are also innovating in the pro-privacy adtech space (see, for example, the Brave browser).

Changing the system — turning the adtech tanker — will take huge effort, but there is a growing opportunity for just such systemic change.

This year, it might be too much to hope for regulators get their act together enough to outlaw consent-less profiling of Internet users entirely. But it may be that those who have sought to proclaim ‘privacy is dead’ will find their unchecked data gathering facing death by a thousand regulatory cuts.

Or, tech giants like Facebook and Google may simple outrun the regulators by reengineering their platforms to cloak vast personal data empires with end-to-end encryption, making it harder for outsiders to regulate them, even as they retain enough of a fix on the metadata to stay in the surveillance business. Fixing that would likely require much more radical regulatory intervention.

European regulators are, whether they like it or not, in this race and under major pressure to enforce the bloc’s existing data protection framework. It seems likely to ding some current-gen digital tracking and targeting practices. And depending on how key decisions on a number of strategic GDPR complaints go, 2020 could see an unpicking — great or otherwise — of components of adtech’s dysfunctional ‘norm’.

Among the technologies under investigation in the region is real-time bidding; a system that powers a large chunk of programmatic digital advertising.

The complaint here is it breaches the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because it’s inherently insecure to broadcast granular personal data to scores of entities involved in the bidding chain.

A

held by the UK’s data watchdog confirmed plenty of troubling findings. Google responded by removing some information from bid requests — though
it does not go far enough. Nothing short of removing personal data entirely will do in their view, which sums to ads that are contextually (not micro)targeted.

Powers that EU data protection watchdogs have at their disposal to deal with violations include not just big fines but data processing orders — which means corrective relief could be coming to take chunks out of data-dependent business models.

As noted above, the adtech industry has already been put on watch this year over current practices, even as it was given a generous half-year grace period to adapt.

In the event it seems likely that turning the ship will take longer. But the message is clear: change is coming. The UK watchdog is due to publish another report in 2020, based on its review of the sector. Expect that to further dial up the pressure on adtech.

Web browsers have also been doing their bit by baking in more tracker blocking by default. And this summer Marketing Land proclaimed the third party cookie dead — asking what’s next?

Alternatives and workarounds will and are springing up (such as stuffing more in via first party cookies). But the notion of tracking by background default is under attack if not quite yet coming unstuck.

Ireland’s DPC is also progressing on a formal investigation of Google’s online Ad Exchange. Further real-time bidding complaints have been lodged across the EU too. This is an issue that won’t be going away soon, however much the adtech industry might wish it.

Year of the GDPR banhammer?

2020 is the year that privacy advocates are really hoping that Europe will bring down the hammer of regulatory enforcement. Thousands of complaints have been filed since the GDPR came into force but precious few decisions have been handed down. Next year looks set to be decisive — even potentially make or break for the data protection regime.

 


0

Adtech told to keep calm and fix its ‘lawfulness’ problem

19:42 | 20 December

Six months after warning that the real-time bidding (RTB) component of programmatic online advertising is wildly out of control — i.e. in a breaking the law sense — the UK’s data protection watchdog has marked half a year’s regulatory inaction with a blog post that entreats the adtech industry to come up with a solution to an “industry problem”. 

Casual readers of the ICO’s pre-Christmas message for European law-flouting adtech might be forgiven for thinking it looks a lot like the regulator telling the industry to ‘keep calm and carry on regulating yourselves’.

More informed readers, who understand that RTB is a process which (currently) entails systematic, privacy-eviscerating high velocity trading of people’s personal data for the purpose of targeting them with ads, might feel moved to point out that self-regulation is a core part of why adtech is in the abject mess it’s in.

Ergo, a data protection regulator calling for more of the same systemic failure does look rather, uh, uninspiring.

In the mildly worded blog post, Simon McDougall, the ICO’s executive director for technology and innovation — who does not appear to work anywhere near an enforcement department — includes such grand suggestions for adtech law-breakers as: “keep engaging with your trade associations”.

You’ll have to forgive us for not being overly convinced such a step will lead to any paradigm tilts to privacy — or “solutions that combine innovation and privacy”, as McDougall puts it — given episodes like this.

Another of the big ideas he has for the industry to get with the legal program is to suggest people working in adtech “challenge” senior management to “review their approach”.

Now we know employee activism is rather in vogue right now — at least at certain monopolistic tech giants who’ve scaled so big, and employ such large armies of lawyers, they’re essentially immune to moral and societal operational norms — but we’re not sure it’s the greatest look for the UK’s data watchdog to be encouraging adtech professionals to put their own jobs on the line instead of, y’know, doing its job and enforcing the law.

It’s possible that McDougall, a relatively recent recruit to the regulator, may not yet know it from his perch in the “technology and innovation” unit, but the ICO does have a powerful toolbox at its disposal these days. Including the ability, under the pan-EU General Data Protection Regulation framework, to levy fines of up to 4% of global turnover on entities it finds seriously violating the law.

It can also order a stop to law-violating data processing. And what better way to end the mass-scale privacy violations attached to programmatic advertising than by ordering personal data be stripped out of RTB requests, you might wonder?

It wouldn’t mean an end to being able to target ads online. Contextual targeting doesn’t require personal data — and has been used successfully by the likes of non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo for years (and profitably so). It would just mean an end to the really creepy, stalkerish stuff. The stuff consumers hate — which also serves up horribly damaging societal effects, given that the mass profiling of Internet users enables push-button discrimination and exploitation of the vulnerable at vast scale.

Microtargeted ads are also, as we now know all too well, a pre-greased electronic conduit for attacks on democracy and society — enabling the spread of malicious disinformation.

The societal stakes couldn’t be higher. Yet the ICO appears content to keep calm and let the adtech industry carry on — no enforcement just biannual reminders of “concerns” about “lawfulness”.

To wit: “We have significant concerns about the lawfulness of the processing of special category data which we’ve seen in the industry, and the lack of explicit consent for that processing,” as McDougall admits in the post.

“We also have concerns about whether reliance on contractual clauses to justify onward data sharing is sufficient to comply with the law. We have not seen case studies that appear to adequately justify this.”

Set tone to: ‘Oopsy’.

The title of the ICO’s blog post — Adtech and the data protection debate – where next? — also incorporates contradictory framing as if to imply there is “debate” as to whether the industry needs to comply with data protection law. (Given the ICO’s own findings of “concern” that framing is itself concerning.)

So what can the adtech industry expect the ICO to actually do if it continues to fail to embed a “privacy by design approach in its use of RTB” (another of the blog post’s big suggestions) — and therefore keeps on, er, breaking the law?

Well, the ICO plans to make like a sponge over the “coming weeks”, per McDougall, who says it will spend time “absorbing all the information gathered and the rich conversations we’ve had throughout the year” and then shift into first gear — where it will be “evaluating all of the options available to us”.

No rush, eh.

A “further update” will then be put out in “early 2020” which will set out the ICO’s position — third time lucky perhaps?!

This update, we are informed, will also include “any action we’re taking”. So possibly still nothing, then.

“The future of RTB is both in the balance and in the hands of all the organisations involved,” McDougall writes — as if regulatory enforcement requires industry buy in.

UK taxpayers should be forgiven for wondering what exactly their data protection regulator is for at this point. Hopefully they’ll find out in a few months’ time.

 


0

In a post-cookie world, RTB is key to effective digital marketing

21:08 | 16 December

Jason Boshoff Contributor
Jason Boshoff is Chief Operating Officer at Bidtellect, a paid content distribution and analytics company.

We’re in a privacy panic.

It started with GDPR, and CCPA followed with new legislation aimed at giving consumers greater control and transparency into how their data is used. Tech giants took a mighty stand to get ahead of the changes and the oncoming cookie-free movement: Apple’s new Intelligent Tracking Prevention (IPT) in Safari places restrictions on cookies based on how frequently a user interacts with the website, purging cookies entirely after 30 days of disuse.

Without obtaining explicit consent from users, Google Chrome will now prevent cross-site cookies from working across domains. Microsoft announced that settings on its new Edge browser will influence how third parties will be able to track consumers across the web.

It worked: since GDPR became enforceable, the number of third-party cookies used per webpage declined from about 80 in April to about 60 in July, and the number of third-party cookies found on news websites (major advertising publishers) in Europe declined by 22%.

In response, there’s been an onslaught of articles claiming the value of real-time bidding (RTB) and all of programmatic will decline in direct correlation with enforced privacy regulation, browser and cookie depreciation. While yes, the cookie (and associated use of cookies) has been the centerpiece of all digital advertising performance reconciliation in the last 15 years, it is not the only reason RTB is an important component of effective digital marketing.

The question then becomes what is the vehicle that allows advertisers and brands to determine the value of those users or inventory in a less cookie-enabled environment.

Enter contextual targeting, which had been living in the shadow of shiny first-party data. It can stop those RTB pipes from rusting by using them to determine the value of the user and placement in the bidding process based on the information on the page, rather than the user. Understanding that we have enough information about ad space without user information means we can face the (more private) future of the industry with far less fear.

It is the answer to the cookie-free, privacy-forward, power-to-the-consumer movement. So how do you determine the value of a placement using contextual targeting – especially when you’ve never valued it that way before? These are – IMHO – the key tenets of deciding the value of a user in a contextual environment:

Placement Targeting: Placement is the exact spot on a publisher’s website/app where an ad unit will appear. Without the ability to target at the placement level, a contextual campaign will not be as effective as it could be. Two identically-sized placements on a page will vary in performance depending on multiple factors, including position, ad type, surrounding context and viewability.

 


0

Tesla acquires computer vision startup DeepScale in push towards robotaxis

00:34 | 2 October

Tesla has acquired DeepScale, a Silicon Valley startup that uses low-wattage processors to power more accurate computer vision, in a bid to improve its Autopilot driver assistance system and deliver on CEO Elon Musk’s vision to turn its electric vehicles into robotaxis.

CNBC was the first to report the acquisition. TechCrunch independently confirmed the deal with two unnamed sources, although neither one would provide more information on the financial terms of the deal. 

Tesla vehicles are not considered fully autonomous, or Level 4, a designation by SAE that means the car can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.

Instead, Tesla vehicles are “Level 2,” and its Autopilot feature is a more advanced driver assistance system than most other vehicles on the road today. Musk has promised that the advanced driver assistance capabilities on Tesla vehicles will continue to improve until eventually reaching that full automation high-water mark.

Earlier this year, Musk said Tesla would launch an autonomous ride-sharing network by 2020. DeepScale, a four-year-old startup based in Mountain View, Calif., appears to be part of that plan. The acquisition also brings much needed talent to Tesla’s Autopilot team, which has suffered from a number of departures in the past year, The Information reported in July.

DeepScale has developed a way to use efficient deep neural networks on small, low-cost, automotive-grade sensors and processors to improve the accuracy of perception systems. These perception systems, which use sensors, mapping, planning and control systems to interpret and classify data in real time, are essential to the operation of autonomous vehicles. In short, these system allow vehicles to understand the world around them.

The company argued that its method of using low-wattage and low cost sensors and processors allowed it to deliver driver assistance and autonomous driving to vehicles at all price points.

The company had raised more than $18 million — in $3 million seed and $156 million Series A rounds — from investors that included Autotech VC, Bessemer, Greylock and Trucks VC.

On Monday, DeepScale’s co-founder Forrest Iandola posted an announcement on Twitter and updated his LinkedIn account. The Twitter message read “I joined the @Tesla #Autopilot team this week. I am looking forward to working with some of the brightest minds in #deeplearning and #autonomousdriving.”

In Tesla’s push towards “full self-driving,” it developed a new custom chip designed to those capabilities. This chip is now in all new Model 3, X and S vehicles. Musk has said that Tesla vehicles being produced now have the hardware necessary — computer and otherwise — for full self-driving. “All you need to do is improve the software,” Musk said in April at the company’s Autonomy Day.

Others in the industry have balked at those claims. Tesla and Musk have maintained the “improve software” line, and have continued to rollout improvements to the capability of Autopilot. Earlier this month, Tesla released a software update that adds new features to its cars. The update included “Smart Summon, an autonomous parking feature that allows owners to use their app to summon their vehicles from a parking space.

 


0

Twitter ‘fesses up to more adtech leaks

11:57 | 7 August

Twitter has disclosed more bugs related to how it uses personal data for ad targeting that means it may have shared users data with advertising partners even when a user had expressly told it not to.

Back in May the social network disclosed a bug that in certain conditions resulted in an account’s location data being shared with a Twitter ad partner, during real-time bidding (RTB) auctions.

In a blog post on its Help Center about the latest “issues” Twitter says it “recently” found, it admits to finding two problems with users’ ad settings choices that mean they “may not have worked as intended”.

It claims both problems were fixed on August 5. Though it does not specify when it realized it was processing user data without their consent.

The first bug relates to tracking ad conversions. This meant that if a Twitter user clicked or viewed an ad for a mobile application on the platform and subsequently interacted with the mobile app Twitter says it “may have shared certain data (e.g., country code; if you engaged with the ad and when; information about the ad, etc)” with its ad measurement and advertising partners — regardless of whether the user had agreed their personal data could be shared in this way.

It suggests this leak of data has been happening since May 2018 — which is also the day when Europe’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, came into force. The regulation mandates disclosure of data breaches (which explains why you’re hearing about all these issues from Twitter) — and means that quite a lot is riding on how “recently” Twitter found these latest bugs. Because GDPR also includes a supersized regime of fines for confirmed data protection violations.

Though it remains to be seen whether Twitter’s now repeatedly leaky adtech will attract regulatory attention…

Twitter specifies that it does not share users’ names, Twitter handles, email or phone number with ad partners. However it does share a user’s mobile device identifier, which GDPR treats as personal data as it acts as a unique identifier. Using this identifier, Twitter and Twitter’s ad partners can work together to link a device identifier to other pieces of identity-linked personal data they collectively hold on the same user to track their use of the wider Internet, thereby allowing user profiling and creepy ad targeting to take place in the background.

The second issue Twitter discloses in the blog post also relates to tracking users’ wider web browsing to serve them targeted ads.

Here Twitter admits that, since September 2018, it may have served targeted ads that used inferences made about the user’s interests based on tracking their wider use of the Internet — even when the user had not given permission to be tracked.

This sounds like another breach of GDPR, given that in cases where the user did not consent to being tracked for ad targeting Twitter would lack a legal basis for processing their personal data. But it’s saying it processed it anyway — albeit, it claims accidentally.

This type of creepy ad targeting — based on so-called ‘inferences’ — is made possible because Twitter associates the devices you use (including mobile and browsers) when you’re logged in to its service with your Twitter account, and then receives information linked to these same device identifiers (IP addresses and potentially browser fingerprinting) back from its ad partners, likely gathered via tracking cookies (including Twitter’s own social plug-ins) which are larded all over the mainstream Internet for the purpose of tracking what you look at online.

These third party ad cookies link individuals’ browsing data (which gets turned into inferred interests) with unique device/browser identifiers (linked to individuals) to enable the adtech industry (platforms, data brokers, ad exchanges and so on) to track web users across the web and serve them “relevant” (aka creepy) ads.

“As part of a process we use to try and serve more relevant advertising on Twitter and other services since September 2018, we may have shown you ads based on inferences we made about the devices you use, even if you did not give us permission to do so,” it how Twitter explains this second ‘issue’.

“The data involved stayed within Twitter and did not contain things like passwords, email accounts, etc.,” it adds. Although the key point here is one of a lack of consent, not where the data ended up.

(Also, the users’ wider Internet browsing activity linked to their devices via cookie tracking did not originate with Twitter — even if it’s claiming the surveillance files it received from its “trusted” partners stayed on its servers. Bits and pieces of that tracked data would, in any case, exist all over the place.)

In an explainer on its website on “personalization based on your inferred identity” Twitter seeks to reassure users that it will not track them without their consent, writing:

We are committed to providing you meaningful privacy choices. You can control whether we operate and personalize your experience based on browsers or devices other than the ones you use to log in to Twitter (or if you’re logged out, browsers or devices other than the one you’re currently using), or email addresses and phone numbers similar to those linked to your Twitter account. You can do this by visiting your Personalization and data settings and adjusting the Personalize based on your inferred identity setting.

The problem in this case is that users’ privacy choices were simply overridden. Twitter says it did not do so intentionally. But either way it’s not consent. Ergo, a breach.

“We know you will want to know if you were personally affected, and how many people in total were involved. We are still conducting our investigation to determine who may have been impacted and If we discover more information that is useful we will share it,” Twitter goes on. “What is there for you to do? Aside from checking your settings, we don’t believe there is anything for you to do.

“You trust us to follow your choices and we failed here. We’re sorry this happened, and are taking steps to make sure we don’t make a mistake like this again. If you have any questions, you may contact Twitter’s Office of Data Protection through this form.”

While the company may “believe” there is nothing Twitter users can do — aside from accept its apology for screwing up — European Twitter users who believe it processed their data without their consent do have a course of action they can take: They can complain to their local data protection watchdog.

Zooming out, there are also major legal question marks hanging over behaviourally targeted ads in Europe.

The UK’s privacy regulator warned in June that systematic profiling of web users via invasive tracking technologies such as cookies is in breach of pan-EU privacy laws — following multiple complaints filed in the region that argue RTB is in breach of the GDPR.

While, back in May Google’s lead regulator in Europe, the Irish Data Protection Commission, confirmed it has opened a formal investigation into use of personal data in the context of its online Ad Exchange.

So the wider point here is that the whole leaky business of creepy ads looks to be operating on borrowed time.

 


0

The Federal Reserve announces plans for a real-time payments system that will be available to all banks

08:48 | 6 August

The Federal Reserve Bank announced today that it is developing a new service called FedNow that will allow all banks in the United States to offer 24/7 real-time payment services every day of the week. FedNow is expected to be available by 2023 or 2024 and will initially support transfers of up to $25,000.

FedNow will make managing budgets easier for many people and small businesses, but it also puts the Fed at loggerheads with big banks since a federal real-time payments system would compete with the one being developed by the Clearing House, which is owned by some of the world’s largest banks, including Capital One, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank.

The Federal Reserve’s board of governors voted 4-1 to approve the proposal for FedNow on August 2, with its of vice chair for supervision, Randal Quarles, casting the dissenting vote.

While Venmo, Zelle and other apps already allow users to transfer money instantly to one another, the Federal Reserve Bank described services like those as a “closed loop” because both parties need to be on the same platform in order to transfer money and they can only be linked to accounts from certain banks. On the other hand, FedNow will be a universal infrastructure, enabling all banks, including smaller ones, to provide real-time payments.

Furthermore, the traditional retail payment methods used for transferring funds not only creates frustrating delays, but can “result in a build-up of financial obligations between banks which, as faster payment usage grows, could present risks to the financial system, especially in times of stress,” the Federal Reserve Board said.

In a FAQ, the Federal Reserve Board explained that “there is a broad consensus within the U.S. payment community and among other stakeholders” that real-time payment services can have a “significant and positive impact on individuals and businesses throughout the country and on the broader U.S. economy.”

For example, real-time payments mean people living on tight budgets will have to rely less on costly check-cashing services and high-interest loans and will incur less overdraft and late fees. Small businesses will also benefit because they can avoid short-term loans with high-interest rates.

The proposal has gained the support of Democratic lawmakers including U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chris Van Hollen and Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Jesús García.

In a statement, Warren, who is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, said “I’m glad the Fed has finally taken action to ensure that people living paycheck-to-paycheck don’t have to wait up to five days for a check to clear so that they can pay their rent, cover child care, or pick up groceries.  Today’s Fed action will also help small businesses by making payments from customers available more quickly. I look forward to working with the Fed to ensure a swift and smooth implementation of this system.”

Comments about FedNow will be accepted for 90 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register.

 


0

Video platform Kaltura adds advanced analytics

22:15 | 1 July

You may not be familiar with Kaltura‘s name, but chances are you’ve used the company’s video platform at some point or another, given that it offers a variety of video services for enterprises, educational institutions and video on demand platforms, including HBO,  Phillips, SAP, Stanford and others. Today, the company announced the launch of an advanced analytics platform for its enterprise and educational users.

This new platform, dubbed Kaltura Analytics for Admins, will provide its users with features like user-level reports. This may sound like a minor feature, since you probably don’t care about the exact details of a given user’s interactions with your video, but it will allow businesses to link this kind of behavior to other metrics. With this, you could measure the ROI of a given video by linking video watch time and sales, for example. This kind of granularity wasn’t possible with the company’s existing analytics systems. Companies and schools using the product will also get access to time period comparisons to help admins identify trends, deeper technology and geolocation reports, as well as real-time analytics for live events.

eCDN QoS dashboard

“Video is a unique data type in that it has deep engagement indicators for measurement, both around video creation – what types of content are being created by whom, as well as around video consumption and engagement with content – what languages were selected for subtitles, what hot-spots were clicked upon in video,” said Michal Tsur, President & General Manager of Enterprise and Learning at Kaltura. “Analytics is a very strategic area for our customers. Both for tech companies who are building on our VPaaS, as well as for large organizations and universities that use our video products for learning, communication, collaboration, knowledge management, marketing and sales.”

Tsur also tells me that the company is looking at how to best use machine learning to give its customers even deeper insights into how people watch videos — and potentially even offer predictive analytics in the long run.

 


0

Behavioural advertising is out of control, warns UK watchdog

22:32 | 20 June

The online behavioural advertising industry is illegally profiling Internet users.

That’s the damning assessment of the UK’s data protection regulator in an update report published today, in which it sets out major concerns about the programmatic advertising process known as real-time bidding (RTB) which makes up a large chunk of online advertising.

In what sounds like a knock-out blow for highly invasive data-driven ads, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) concludes that systematic profiling of web users via invasive tracking technologies such as cookies is in breach of UK and pan-EU privacy laws.

“The adtech industry appears immature in its understanding of data protection requirements,” it writes. “Whilst the automated delivery of ad impressions is here to stay, we have general, systemic concerns around the level of compliance of RTB.”

As we’ve previously reported, multiple complaints have been filed with European regulators arguing that RTB is in breach of the pan-EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including the ICO.

The UK watchdog has not yet issued a formal legal decision against RTB. But with this report it’s giving the industry a clear signal that practices must change.

Its full list of conclusions is well worth reading — so we’ve pasted it below, along with our own ‘plainer English’ paraphrasing of what’s actually being said (formatted in italics):

1. Processing of non-special category data is taking place unlawfully at the point of collection due to the perception that legitimate interests can be used for placing and/or reading a cookie or other technology (rather than obtaining the consent PECR [Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations] requires).

The ICO has found that consents for dropping trackers like cookies are not being legally obtained. The law requires obtaining consent before dropping and/or reading from a tracker. This means Internet users must be asked for consent before tracking starts happening, and also — at the point they are asked — provided with ”clear and comprehensive information” about what’s intended in order that they can make a free and informed choice about whether they want to consent or not. Whereas what’s happening now is web users are being tracked without being asked if that’s okay and also without the extent and implications of all this mass surveillance being made plain to them

2. Any processing of special category data is taking place unlawfully as explicit consent is not being collected (and no other condition applies). In general, processing such data requires more protection as it brings an increased potential for harm to individuals.

Sensitive personal data (such as political views, health information, sexual orientation) is being processed by the behavioural advertising industry — but not legally because, under UK and EU law, handling this sort of information requires a higher standard of explicit consent, given there are much greater risks of harms were it to be misused or go astray. The problem is the adtech industry is not asking Internet users for explicit consent to make and share these sensitive inferences — likely because if a pop-up asked you to agree to, for example, your political or sexual preferences being broadcast to hundreds of advertisers you’d be sure to click ‘hell no’. Trying to get around the law by just not asking also isn’t legal

3. Even if an argument could be made for reliance on legitimate interests, participants within the ecosystem are unable to demonstrate that they have properly carried out the legitimate interests tests and implemented appropriate safeguards.

Here the ICO is doubly crushing the industry’s bogus reliance on claiming what’s known as ‘legitimate interest’ as the legal basis for violating Internet users’ personal space and intimacy by spying on them. Even if it were possible to use this basis for this data purpose, the watchdog points out they haven’t even fulfilled the standard for LI — which requires carrying out various assessments and taking steps to secure people’s data. What’s actually happening is RTB does the equivalent of blasting everything it knows about you through a giant global megaphone. So, er, not at all safe then

4. There appears to be a lack of understanding of, and potentially compliance with, the DPIA requirements of data protection law more broadly (and specifically as regards the ICO’s Article 35(4) list). We therefore have little confidence that the risks associated with RTB have been fully assessed and mitigated.

The ICO says it believes the adtech industry has also failed to do due diligence on RTB — because it’s found companies haven’t even bothered to carry out data protection impact assessments (DPIAs). That in turn suggests they haven’t even tried to get a handle on privacy risks, and therefore are demonstrably not making any effort to try to reduce those risks. Epic fail

5. Privacy information provided to individuals lacks clarity whilst also being overly complex. The TCF and Authorized Buyers frameworks are insufficient to ensure transparency and fair processing of the personal data in question and therefore also insufficient to provide for free and informed consent, with attendant implications for PECR compliance.

What’s being said here is that privacy polices and consent pop ups are horribly confusing — which means Internet users have little hope of understanding what on earth they’re being asked to agree to. Yet for consent to be legal people need to understand that. The ICO also specifically calls out industry mechanisms created by the Internet Advertising Bureau and Google for publishers and advertisers to gather consents as falling short of the legal standard. So, again, another major, major fail

6. The profiles created about individuals are extremely detailed and are repeatedly shared among hundreds of organisations for any one bid request, all without the individuals’ knowledge.

If you thought Internet ads were creepy here’s the proof: The ICO is saying the behavioural advertising industry’s mass surveillance of web users results in all of us being profiled in crazy detail — and those spy files then being routinely handed off to (at least) hundreds of companies who are involved in the adtech chain every time there’s a programmatic ad transaction. These Stasi-esque dossiers are also being handed over, no strings attached, billions of times per day — so goodness knows where they end up. Still browsing comfortably?

7. Thousands of organisations are processing billions of bid requests in the UK each week with (at best) inconsistent application of adequate technical and organisational measures to secure the data in transit and at rest, and with little or no consideration as to the requirements of data protection law about international transfers of personal data.

Here the watchdog makes it clear that it agrees with the substance of the RTB complaints — i.e. that people’s information is not being lawfully handled because it’s not being properly protected. It also essentially makes the point that these illegal spy files could end up in Timbuktu and you’d be none the wiser

8. There are similar inconsistencies about the application of data minimisation and retention controls.

If all that wasn’t enough, the ICO is saying the adtech industry is failing on other core legal requirements to collect as little data as possible and to place strict limits on how long it keeps data for. Insert your own *unsurprised face*

9. Individuals have no guarantees about the security of their personal data within the ecosystem.

If it wasn’t already really obvious, the watchdog rams the point home: Basically behavioural advertising is out of control

“The processing operations involved in RTB are of a nature likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals,” it further warns.

The complexity and opacity involved in data-driven advertising also means Internet users are hopelessly outgunned as their rights are systematically steamrollered. (Or as the ICO puts it: “The complex nature of the ecosystem means that in our view participants are engaging with it without fully understanding the privacy and ethical issues involved.”)

While you might think such a long laundry list of staggeringly massive rights violations should be more than enough for any watchdog to bring down the hammer and order the illegal practices to cease, the ICO is taking a different tack.

It’s creeping ahead cautiously — saying it wants to gather more data from the industry, perhaps issue another report next year, while also signalling to adtech companies that practices must change.

This is frustratingly contradictory — because the ICO also writes that it doesn’t believe the industry will change without a regulatory smack down.

“Our work has highlighted the lack of maturity of some market participants, and the ongoing commercial incentives to associate personal data with bid requests. We do not think these issues will be addressed without intervention. We are therefore planning a measured and iterative approach, so that we act decisively and transparently, but also in ways in which we can observe the markets reaction and adapt our approach accordingly,” it says in the report.

“We intend to provide market participants with an appropriate period of time to adjust their practices. After this period, we expect data controllers and market participants to have addressed our concerns.”

The contrast between the view that it’s now putting out there — that massive violations of laws and rights are occurring — and yet more regulatory inaction means it is coming in for some major flak from data protection and privacy experts, who make the salient point that rules don’t exist unless they’re enforced. Nor indeed do rights unless they’re defended and upheld…

Reached for comment on the ICO’s report, Dr Johnny Ryan, chief policy and industry relations officer of private browser Brave — and also one of the individuals behind the original RTB complaints — told us: “The ICO’s report recognises the data protection issues that we raised back in September last year. This is a useful confirmation of what was already clear. However, there is an urgent need for action now to prevent the identified illegality that undermines the privacy and data protection of every person using the Internet, the regulator must now take action.”

We’ve reached out to the IAB and Google for comment but at the time of writing neither had sent a response to the report.

The ICO’s earlier Technology Strategy planning document highlighted the risks posed by data-driven advertising. It followed that by making interrogating adtech practices a regulatory priority — hence today’s update.

Attention has also been concentrated on the sector since GDPR came into force by privacy and rights campaigners filing complaints about the legality of behavioural advertising.

In May the Irish DPC announced it had opened a formal investigation into Google’s adtech, after an initial assessment of a RTB complaint filed in Ireland.

It’s likely the ICO is taking a wait and see approach now to await the outcome of the DPC’s formal probe.

In its report the UK regulator does say it will “continue to liaise and share information with our European colleagues” — and also commits to “identify opportunities to work together where appropriate”. So there is likely co-ordination going on between the two DPAs.

There is also a hint of a solution in the report, when the ICO says it will “further consult with IAB Europe and Google about the detailed schema they are utilising in their respective frameworks to identify whether specific data fields are excessive and intrusive, and possibly agree (or mandate) revised schema”.

This sounds like it’s coming round to the view that online advertising doesn’t need masses of personal data to function — but can in fact be targeted contextually, delivering ad clicks while simultaneously protecting individuals’ privacy and fundamental rights.

A view that

. (Also relevant: Revenues generated by the current structure of the adtech market disproportionately flows to the tech giant duopoly of Facebook and Google, whereas publisher revenues have not enjoyed massive growth… )

“We understand that advertisements fund much of what we enjoy online. We understand the need for a system that allows revenue for publishers and audiences for advertisers. We understand a need for the process to happen in a heartbeat. Our aim is to prompt changes that reflect this reality, but also to ensure respect for internet users’ legal rights,” writes information commissioner Elizabeth Denham .

“The rules that protect people’s personal data must be followed. Companies do not need to choose between innovation and privacy.”

(For context on the -4% figure cited in the above tweet see here.)

 


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Rumpus, the collaborative toolkit from Oblong Industries, is now available on Webex

13:30 | 30 May

In a previous life, John Underkoffler spent his days in Los Angeles dreaming up all of the possible ways men and machines would interact as a science adviser on films like Minority Report.

Now, he designs those systems for the real world through his company Oblong Industries, which has labored to create a full stack of collaborative tools for business users that are every bit as high-tech as the one’s Underkoffler dreamt for the silver screen.

The first bolt in the quiver of tools that Underkoffler began building out over the course of 15 years spent at MIT’s Media Lab was Mezzanine. A multipurpose collaborative platform that allowed business users to share documents and interact in real time through a powerful combination of videoconferencing hardware and software.

In the age of Zoom though, Oblong’s tools have become more lightweight, and the company is steadily adding multi-share capabilities to platforms other than its own. That new gaggle of collaboration tools launched under the moniker of Rumpus, and Oblong has been partnering with different video services to add its services to their own.

The latest to get the Rumpus treatment is Cisco Webex.  Now Cisco’s videoconferencing customers will get access to Rumpus’ personal cursors that point and emphasize content on shared screens, presence indicators to show who is looking where and at what, and emoji reactions to provide feedback without disrupting the flow of a meeting.

The company’s tools enable all of the users in a meeting to share their screens without competing for screen time.

“We’ve worked closely with Cisco over the last year to bring the capabilities of our flagship product, Mezzanine, to the Cisco suite of enterprise solutions for meetings paces. So as we completed Oblong’s own set of content-first collaboration offerings by building out Rumpus for pure-virtual work, it was obvious that Webex should be among the first conferencing solutions to be directly integrated,” said Underkoffler in a statement. “We’re thrilled to bring . the next level of engagement and productivity to millions of Webex users when their meetings require more than basic video and messaging.”

Rumpus is currently available for free to Mac computer users with Windows support coming soon.

 


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GDPR adtech complaints keep stacking up in Europe

14:16 | 20 May

It’s a year since Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force and leaky adtech is now facing privacy complaints in four more European Union markets. This ups the tally to seven markets where data protection authorities have been urged to investigate a core function of behavioral advertising.

The latest clutch of GDPR complaints aimed at the real-time bidding (RTB) system have been filed in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain.

All the complaints argue that RTB entails “wide-scale and systemic” breaches of Europe’s data protection regime, as personal date harvested to profile Internet users for ad-targeting purposes is broadcast widely to bidders in the adtech chain. The complaints have implications for key adtech players, Google and the Internet Advertising Bureau, which set RTB standards used by other in the online adverting pipeline.

We’ve reached out to Google and IAB Europe for comment on the latest complaints. (The latter’s original response statement to the complaint can be found here, behind its cookie wall.)

The first RTB complaints were filed in the UK and Ireland, last fall, by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group; and Michael Veale, a data and policy researcher at University College London.

A third complaint went in to Poland’s DPA in January, filed by anti-surveillance NGO, the Panoptykon Foundation.

The latest four complaints have been lodged in Spain by Gemma Galdon Clavell (Eticas Foundation) and Diego Fanjul (Finch); David Korteweg (Bits of Freedom) in the Netherlands; Jef Ausloos (University of Amsterdam) and Pierre Dewitte (University of Leuven) in Belgium; and Jose Belo (Exigo Luxembourg).

Earlier this year a lawyer working with the complainants said they’re expecting “a cascade of complaints” across Europe — and “fully expect an EU-wide regulatory response” give that the adtech in question is applied region-wide.

Commenting in a statement, Galdon Cavell, the CEO of Eticas, said: “We hope that this complaint sends a strong message to Google and those using Ad Tech solutions in their websites and products. Data protection is a legal requirement must be translated into practices and technical specifications.”

A ‘bug’ disclosed last week by Twitter illustrates the potential privacy risks around adtech, with the social networking platform revealing it had inadvertently shared some iOS users’ location data with an ad partner during the RTB process. (Less clear is who else might Twitter’s “trusted advertising partner” have passed people’s information to?)

The core argument underpinning the complaints is that RTB’s data processing is not secure — given the design of the system entails the broadcasting of (what can be sensitive and intimate) personal data of Internet users to all sorts of third parties in order to generate bids for ad space.

Whereas GDPR bakes in a requirement for personal data to be processed “in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data”. So, uh, spot the disconnect.

The latest RTB complaints assert personal data is broadcast via bid requests “hundreds of billions of times” per day — which it describes as “the most massive leakage of personal data recorded so far”.

While the complaints focus on security risks attached by default to leaky adtech, such a long chain of third parties being passed people’s data also raises plenty of questions over the validity of any claimed ‘consents’ for passing Internet users’ data down the adtech chain. (Related: A decision by the French CNIL last fall against a small local adtech player which it decided was unlawfully processing personal data obtained via RTB.)

This week will mark a year since GDPR came into force across the EU. And it’s fair to say that privacy complaints have been piling up, while enforcement actions — such as a $57M fine for Google from the French CNIL related to Android consent — remain far rarer.

One complexity with the RTB complaints is that the technology systems in question are both applied across EU borders and involve multiple entities (Google and the IAB). This means multiple privacy watchdogs need to work together to determine which of them is legally competent to address linked complaints that touch EU citizens in multiple countries.

Who leads can depend on where an entity has its main establishment in the EU and/or who is the data controller. If this is not clearly established it’s possible that various national actions could flow from the complaints, given the cross-border nature of the adtech — as in the CNIL decision against Android, for example. (Though Google made a policy change as of January 22, shifting its legal base for EU law enforcement to Google Ireland which looks intended to funnel all GDPR risk via the Irish DPC.)

The IAB Europe, meanwhile, has an office in Belgium but it’s not clear whether that’s the data controller in this case. Ausloos tells us that the Belgian DPA has already declared itself competent regarding the complaint filed against the IAB by the Panoptykon Foundation, while noting another possibility — that the IAB claims the data controller is IAB Tech Lab, based in New York — “in which case any and all DPAs across the EU would be competent”.

Veale also says different DPAs could argue that different parts of the IAB are in their jurisdiction. “We don’t know how the IAB structure really works, it’s very opaque,” he tells us.

The Irish DPC, which Google has sought to designate the lead watchdog for its European business, has said it will prioritize scrutiny of the adtech sector in 2019, referencing the RTB complaints in its annual report earlier this year — where it warned the industry: “the protection of personal data is a prerequisite to the processing of any personal data within this ecosystem and ultimately the sector must comply with the standards set down by the GDPR”.

There’s no update on how the UK’s ICO is tackling the RTB complaint filed in the UK as yet — but Veale notes they have a call today. (And we’ve reached out to the ICO for comment.)

So far the same RTB complaints have not been filed in France and Germany — jurisdictions with privacy watchdogs that can have a reputation for some of the most muscular action enforcing data protection in Europe.

Although the Belgian DPA’s recently elected new president is making muscular noises about GDPR enforcement, according to Ausloos — who cites a speech he made, post-election, saying the ‘time of sit back and relax’ is over. They made sure to reference these comments in the RTB complaint, he adds.

Veale suggests the biggest blocker to resolving the RTB complaints is that all the various EU watchdogs “need a vision of what the world looks like after they take a given action”.

In the meanwhile, the adtech complaints keep stacking up.

 


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