UK watchdog warns that behavioural advertising is out of control

A recent report published by the U.K.’s data protection regulator, deemed the online behavioural advertising industry to be illegally profiling internet users.

The report sets out major concerns about real-time bidding (RTB), programmatic advertising process which accounts for a large part of online advertising.

The report suggest that these are highly invasive data-driven ads. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) concluded that the systematic profiling of web users, through invasive tracking technologies like cookies, is in breach of U.K. and pan-EU privacy laws.

“The adtech industry appears immature in its understanding of data protection requirements,” it writes. “Whilst the automated delivery of ad impressions is here to stay, we have general, systemic concerns around the level of compliance of RTB.”

Although the U.K. watchdog is yet to issue a formal legal decision against RTB, the report send a clear message; that practices must change.

“The processing operations involved in RTB are of a nature likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals,” it further warns.

The complex and impervious nature of data-driven advertising often means internet users are engaging with it “without fully understanding the privacy and ethical issues involved”.

Although the ICO writes that it doesn’t believe the industry will change without a regulatory smackdown, it seems reluctant to take affirmative action. Instead, it is cautiously setting out to gather more data from the industry and has proposed compiling another report next year.

“Our work has highlighted the lack of maturity of some market participants, and the ongoing commercial incentives to associate personal data with bid requests. We do not think these issues will be addressed without intervention. We are therefore planning a measured and iterative approach, so that we act decisively and transparently, but also in ways in which we can observe the markets reaction and adapt our approach accordingly,” it says in the report.