What you Google says a lot about you – some of it very personal. While the advertising industry has made progress in giving consumers more choice about the ads that target them based on their search and browsing behaviour online, some of those ads are still getting a little too personal.
That's according to a report released on Monday by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. It conducted a four-month study looking at targeted online advertising, by searching topics on search engines such as Google and Bing, and then visiting 46 of the country's most popular websites to see the types of ads that popped up.
The OPC was looking for whether advertisers notified consumers when they were seeing an ad because their Internet browsing behaviour suggested they would be interested in the product or service being advertised; and whether they were given the choice to opt out of that tracking. It also looked for whether any ads were delivered based on browsing information that is considered a sensitive topic: divorce, for example, or health information such as a pregnancy. Financial information is also considered sensitive. Over all, almost 9,000 ads were examined. Roughly 300 of those ads were targeted based on searches.
Of those, the OPC found 34 ads that were targeted based on sensitive searches. Those included "pregnancy test," "bankruptcy," "divorce lawyer" and "liposuction." The ads found in the study were placed by Criteo, AdRoll and Google.
"Although it's a small minority, still, it's concerning that we found any at all," said Patricia Kosseim, senior general counsel and director-general at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Even if those ads included a notice about tracking, and an opt-out mechanism, she added, the OPC has been clear that that isn't enough: Targeting ads based on sensitive personal information – unless a consumer has specifically opted in – is against the industry guidelines that the OPC released in 2011.
"Sensitivity of information is very contextual," Ms. Kosseim said. "It depends on the nature of the information and the context and what the reasonable expectations of the individual might be in that context. We chose topics that were sensitive based on a more general sense that these would be considered probably universally sensitive, irrespective of the context."
This has been an issue before. Last year, for example, the privacy watchdog found that Google Inc.'s AdSense service had placed ads online based on searches one consumer had done to find devices to treat sleep apnea.
"Google made changes to their procedures to enforce their policies on retargeting related to [sleep apnea] devices, and these seem to have been successful," the report states. "However, the present results show that retargeting is taking place for other sensitive topics, both by Google and by others."
Amid those concerns, the report also included some good news for the industry.
More than 96 per cent of the targeted ads found in the study included a notification informing people that the ad was behaviourally targeted, and gave people the choice to opt out.
Two years ago, the industry launched a program designed to give consumers more control over ads they see online. Under the program, advertisers could use the "Ad Choices" icon – a blue triangle with a lower-case "i" inside it – and Web users who clicked on that icon would be given more information and could opt out of targeting. The study indicates the program has been widely adopted. All but one website in the study used that icon when flagging a targeted ad.
The study also found that the Ad Choices experience was inconsistent, however. The icon appeared in different ways, and when users clicked on it, they "could be brought to a variety of different websites and be shown a variety of opt-out interfaces, with little consistency," the report noted. Some websites also required that users go through a number of steps before they could actually opt out of seeing targeted ads. The report recommended that the program improve its procedures.
In its research, the OPC created a new browser profile for each search so that ads were not based on any other browsing history besides the test topic being searched. It also used technology to change where the computer appeared to be located, to get a sense of ad targeting across Canada.
For consumers who don't want to see ads based on their behaviour online, the report recommended using their Web browsers' privacy options to block and clear cookies used for tracking. Consumers can also turn to the OPC if they feel an ad has been targeted to them based on sensitive information.
"They have the right to lodge a complaint or bring those issues to our attention, and we encourage them to avail themselves of that right," Ms. Kosseim said.