Lawmakers Push FTC to Investigate Online Advertisers Tracking and Selling of Consumers’ Data

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They warn consumers’ bidstream data can be used to “compile exhaustive dossiers about them.”

Nine Democrats and one Republican urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate ad-tech companies and data brokers capturing and selling consumers’ personal information—including their locations—generated when they view an ad on their phones, computers or other devices. 

Backed by a small group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress, Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Friday penned a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, urging the agency to look into whether entities have violated federal laws barring unfair and deceptive business practices through a less-heard-of ad-tech paradigm called real time bidding, or RTB

In the note, lawmakers also raise concerns that at least one data broker recently compiled data, and with it, subsequently profiled people who participated in Black Lives Matter protests. 

“This outrageous privacy violation must be stopped and the companies that are trafficking in Americans’ illicitly obtained private data should be shut down,” the lawmakers wrote.

When advertisements are served through RTB, hundreds of advertisers participate in an auction milliseconds before ads appear in apps or browsers, the lawmakers explain. Those involved speedily gain a range of information about the potential viewer of the ad, which includes unique information about the recipients’ age, gender, location, IP address, device identifiers and more. While all the bidders engaged will access the detailed information about the user, only the auction winner will actually deliver the ad. According to the letter’s writers, Americans generally do not recognize that “companies are siphoning off and storing that ‘bidstream’ data to compile exhaustive dossiers about them,” which are in-turn sold by data brokers to political campaigns, government agencies and others, without court orders—or users’ knowledge or consent. 

In the letter, the Congress members explicitly highlight how one known data broker and bidstream data buyer, Mobilewalla “used location and inferred race data” to characterize participants in recent Black Lives Matter protests, and before that, built religious profiles based on data tracking Americans visiting places of worship. 

Though the exact companies selling bidstream data to that data broker and others are not presently transparent or clear, the lawmakers also argue that some are participating in RTB auctions with zero intent to deliver ads—instead, they solely aim to harvest out marketable bidstream data.

“[T]here is no effective way to control these tools absent intervention by regulators and Congress,” the lawmakers argued. “Technological roadblocks, such as browser privacy settings and ad blockers, are routinely circumvented by advertising companies.”

Aside from Cassidy and Wyden, the letter was also signed by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as well as Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.

After the letter’s release, Clarke published a separate statement with Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks further promoting an FTC-led investigation into what they deemed “troubling practices.” 

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