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Google falls foul of Canadian privacy law with targeted advertising

Google has been rapped by Canada’s privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier over its use of targeted advertising, in a case that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada recognises as being indicative of a wider problem in the industry,

‘If an organization as sophisticated as Google had difficulty ensuring compliance with its privacy policy, surely others have the same challenges. The operational challenges are inherent to online behavioural advertising. There is an ambiguity, and a necessity to define what is sensitive information – and how do you monitor billions of ads?’

The criticism follows the case of a man who, after seraching for information on devices to help sleep apnoea, found himself targeted by ads delivered by Google’s AdSense service, focusing on his medical condition.

Although targeted advertising based on web behaviour analysis is not illegal (and is the core basis of Google’s business model), this contravenes both Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which specifies that targeted advertising must avoid using sensitive personal data (such as medical data), and Google’s own privacy policy, which prohibits displaying advertisements based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health.

Google has stated that it plans to upgrade its systems for reviewing ad compliance, provide increased monitoring of ads, and to issue clearer guidelines to its advertisers, but Bernier’s office recognises the problem as one that affect the entire online advertising industry, where personal browsing habits are tracked, analysed, and traded with other advertisers on online marketplaces, all the better to target advertising as narrowly as possible.

‘There are compliance challenges; they need to have the mechanisms that are up to the task…  We’re going industry wide,’ said Bernier.

The main method used to track individuals across the internet used to be cookies, but as more people have become aware of their dangers and take action against them, much sneakier methods are being employed, including zombie cookies, ETags, history stealing, Web Storage and browser fingerprinting.

Avoiding this tracking altogether is not easy, but we have a series of articles on the subject, including discussions on how best to avoid it, beginning here. Most major search engines (such as Google and Bing!) record your searches (as well as tracking you), so it is a good idea to use an anonymous search engine such as DuckDuckGo.

It won’t help against websites and third party analytics and advertising domains tracking you, but Adblock Edge (a fork of Adblock Plus but without the optional ‘some not intrusive advertising’) does a good job of ensuring you never actually see the ads this generates.


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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