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Sunday, 26 October 2014

‘Anonymous' web tracking is nothing of the sort, Senate hears

Risks of data misuse are not known and not understood, says civil liberties group

US-- Civil liberties campaigners have told the US Senate that the risks of misuse of data gathered for behavioural targeting are not fully known, and not understood by consumers.

Consumer groups, web publishers and online advertising firms all gave evidence at the hearing, but internet service providers declined invitations to appear. Senator Byron Dorgan, who chaired the hearing, promised to hold a second session to hear their evidence.

Dorgan said the Senate needed to decide if more protection is needed for consumers. The Federal Trade Commission, which recently published guidelines for self-regulation, might need to consider enforcement, and Congress might need to address the country's “patchwork of privacy laws”, he said.

Lydia Parnes of the Federal Trade Commission said that “for the most part consumers don't understand what's happening behind the screen”, while Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that information gathered for behavioural targeting can be used to identify people, even if it is supposedly anonymous.

Robert Dykes, CEO of NebuAd, which uses data from internet service providers (ISPs) to produce targeted advertising, was called on to defend the opt-out system through which internet users can choose not to share their data. Dorgan said: “If my ISP said to me, ‘Is it OK if we give everything you do to another company?' I'd say, ‘Of course it's not OK, are you kidding me? The answer is no, N-O.' So from an opt-in standpoint I'd guess this would not be a workable model.”

Dykes claimed that the system was “robust”, pointing to the fact that a significant number of users exercise their right to opt out.

There was also disagreement over what constitutes personally identifiable information, with Harris claiming that large amounts of data on behaviour could be used to build a profile and identify an individual, even if actual name and address are not known. “We're trying to believe that this information is anonymous,” she said. “At best it's pseudononymous.”

Harris accused publishers and advertisers of keeping too much data for too long. But Dykes said her view was “a misunderstanding of how we operate”. He claimed NebuAd already puts limits on its activities in order to protect consumer privacy, and resolved from the outset “to never be in a position to have such data”.

Author: Robert Bain

Related links:

Online data collection ‘out of control' fears EU Commissioner

BT threatened with legal action over online tracking

Trade Commission sets out online privacy principles

Online privacy groups call for do-not-track list

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