'Intrusive' adtech industry given six months to clean house

ICO demands change in way online advertisers collect data and seek permission from users.

ICO: critical of transparency and consent procedures
ICO: critical of transparency and consent procedures

The adtech industry has been given six months to get its house in order after the UK’s data protection watchdog severely criticised the real-time bidding process.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said RTB presents a number of "challenges to good data protection" and that the adtech industry appears "immature" in its understanding of compliance.

Through the RTB process, ads are served to internet users based on personal information that is held about them. Google, the world’s biggest online advertising company, was fined under European Union GDPR rules in January for improperly obtaining user consent for how data about them is collected and stored. 

In a statement, the ICO’s executive director for technology policy and innovation, Simon McDougall, demanded a change in how things are done. 

"If you operate in the adtech space, it’s time to look at what you’re doing now and to assess how you use personal data," he said.

The ICO is looking at two areas in particular: the processing of special category data and issues caused by relying solely on contracts for data-sharing across the supply chain.

The watchdog’s report, released on 20 June, was published months after campaigners accused ad-auction companies of unlawfully profiling users' religious beliefs, ethnicities, diseases, disabilities and sexual orientation. 

The ICO was particularly critical of the transparency and consent procedures used in RTB. For example:

  • Methods of obtaining consent are often "insufficient" in respect of data protection law requirements;
  • Privacy notices given to internet users "lack clarity and do not give them full visibility over what happens to their data";
  • The scale of the creation and sharing of personal data "appears disproportionate, intrusive and unfair";
  • Companies that engage in RTB do not fully understand the privacy and ethical issues involved. 

The ICO will undertake another industry review in six months’ time and said it expects data controllers and companies that use RTB to have addressed its concerns.