ICO restarts AdTech probe following threats of legal action

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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced that it’s resuming its investigation into real-time bidding (RTB) and the AdTech industry after privacy campaigners threatened to sue the data regulator for failing to take action.

The ICO said in May that it would pause its investigation into RTB, despite stating in a 2019 report that the AdTech industry, overwhelmingly dominated by Facebook and Google, was violating data protection laws, particularly with regards to RTB.

The ICO said at the time did not want to “put undue pressure on any industry” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that its concerns were still alive and that it would restart its work “in the coming months, when the time is right”.

The ICO today announced that it was restarting its investigation. Simon McDougall, ICO deputy commissioner of Regulatory Innovation and Technology, said in a statement: “Enabling transparency and protecting vulnerable citizens are priorities for the ICO. The complex system of RTB can use people’s sensitive personal data to serve adverts and requires people’s explicit consent, which is not happening right now.

“Sharing people’s data with potentially hundreds of companies, without properly assessing and addressing the risk of these counterparties, also raises questions around the security and retention of this data.

“Our work will continue with a series of audits focusing on digital market platforms and we will be issuing assessment notices to specific companies in the coming months.

McDougall added that it will also be reviewing the roll data brokers, which plays a large part in RTB, in the AdTech ecosystem, following its GDPR enforcement action against Experian in October 2020.

“The investigation is vast and complex and, because of the sensitivity of the work, there will be times where it won’t be possible to provide regular updates,” he added. "However, we are committed to publishing our final findings, once the investigation is concluded.”

News that the investigation has been resumed will likely be welcomed by the Open Rights Group (ORG) and web browser developer Brave. The former threatened the ICO with legal action for failing to take action against the AdTech industry, while the latter accused the regulator of “alling asleep at the wheel".

“To the best of our knowledge, the ICO has failed to use a single one of its statutory powers to investigate the vast 'real-time bidding' data breach in the thirty months since I blew the whistle to your colleagues,” said chief policy and industry relations officer with Brave Software, Johnny Ryan.

"This is disquieting, and is hard to reconcile with the ICO’s growing budget, which has doubled in the last two years."

Carly Page

Carly Page is a freelance technology journalist, editor and copywriter specialising in cyber security, B2B, and consumer technology. She has more than a decade of experience in the industry and has written for a range of publications including Forbes, IT Pro, the Metro, TechRadar, TechCrunch, TES, and WIRED, as well as offering copywriting and consultancy services. 

Prior to entering the weird and wonderful world of freelance journalism, Carly served as editor of tech tabloid The INQUIRER from 2012 and 2019. She is also a graduate of the University of Lincoln, where she earned a degree in journalism.

You can check out Carly's ramblings (and her dog) on Twitter, or email her at hello@carlypagewrites.co.uk.