Towards transparency and privacy in the online advertising business

10 thoughts that stuck with me after attending a data protection event almost every month for the last two years

1. Privacy is not hype.

The uncontrolled erosion of privacy is not a “victimless crime”. The cost is just shifted to the future. Could be paid tomorrow — an offending ad — or in a few years — a record of your assumed health status leaking to an insurance company.

2. People don’t currently care much about it but this can change fast.

Indeed people don’t seem to care that much right now, certainly not enough to give up any of the conveniences of the web. But nothing about it is written on stone. Some other things that people didn’t use to care about: smoking, car safety, airport security, dangerous toys, racial or sexual discrimination. Societies evolve … privacy discussions and debates have started reaching the wider public.

3. Privacy problems will only get worse.

Privacy vs. web business models is a textbook example of a Tragedy of the Commons. The financial temptation is just too great to be ignored, especially by companies that have nothing to risk or loose. Just find a niche for data that somebody would be willing to pay good money and go for it. Even if all the big companies play totally by the book, there’s still a long tail of thousands of medium to small trackers/data aggregators that can destroy consumer and regulator trust.

4. The web can actually break due to privacy.

The web as big and successful as it is, is not indestructible. It too can fall from grace. Other media that once were king are no longer. News papers and TV are nowhere near their prior glory. Loss of trust is the Achilles’ heel of the web.

5. Privacy extremism or wishful thinking are not doing anybody any good.

Extremists at both sides of the spectrum are not doing anybody any good. Stopping all leakage is both impossible and unnecessary. Similarly, believing that the market will magically find its way without any special effort or care is wishful thinking. There are complex tradeoffs in the area to be confronted. That’s fine and nothing new really. Our societies have dealt with similar situations again and again in the past. From financial systems, to transportation, and medicine, there are always practical solutions for maximizing the societal benefits while minimising the risks for individuals. They just take time and effort before they can be reached with lots of trial and error along the way.

6. Complex technology can only be tamed by other, equally advanced, technology.

Regulation and self-regulation have a critical role in the area but are effectively helpless without specialised technology for auditing and testing for compliance, whether pro-actively or reactively. Have you lately taken your car to service? What did you see? A mechanic nowadays is merely connecting a computer to another that checks it by running a barrage of tests. Then he analyses and interpretes the results. A doctor is doing a similar thing but for humans. If the modern mechanic and doctor depend on technology for their daily job, why should a lawyer or a judge be left alone to make sense of privacy and data protection on the internet only with paper and a briefcase at hand?

7. Transparency software is the catalyst for trusting again the web.

Transparency software is the catalyser that can empower regulators and DPAs while creating the right incentives and market pressures to expedite the market convergence to a win-win state for all. But hold on a second … What is this “Transparency software”? Well it’s just what its name suggest. Simple to use software for checking (aha “transparency”) for information uses that users or regulators dont like. You know things like targeting minors online, targeting ads to patients, making arbitrary assumptions about one’s political, religious beliefs, or sexual preference.

A simple but fundamental idea here is that since it is virtually impossible to stop all information leakage (this would break the web faster than privacy), we can try to reduce it and then keep an open eye for controversial practices. A second important idea is to resist the temptation of finding holistic solutions and instead start working on specific data protection problems in given contexts. Context can improve many of our discussions and lead to tangible results faster and easier. If such tangible results don’t start showing up in the foreseeable future its only natural to expect that everyone will eventually be exhausted and give up the whole privacy and data protection matter altogether. Therefore why dont we start interleaving in our abstract discussions some more grounded ones. Pick up one application/service at a time, see what (if anything) is annoying people about it, and fix it. Solving specific issues in specific contexts is not as glamorous as magic general solutions but guess what — we can solve PII leakage issues in a specific website in a matter of hours and we can come up with tools to detect PII leakages in six months to a year, whereas coming up with a general purpose solution for all matters of privacy may take too long.

8. Transparency works. Ask the telcos about Network Neutrality.

Transparency has in the past proved to be quite effective. Indeed, almost a decade ago the Network Neutrality debate was ignited by reports that some Telcos were using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment to delay or block certain types of traffic, such as peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic from BitTorrent and other protocols. Unnoticed among scores of public statements and discussions, groups of computer scientists started building simple to use tools to check whether a broadband connection was being subjected to P2P blocking. Similarly, tools were built to test whether a broadband connection matched the advertised speed. All a user had to do to check whether his ISP was blocking BitTorrent was to visit a site and click on a button that launches a series of test and … voila. Verifying actual broadband speeds was made equally simple. The existence of such easy to use tools seems to have created the right incentives for Telcos to avoid blocking while making sure they deliver on speed promises.

9. Market, self-regulation, and regulation, in that order.

Most of the work for fixing data protection problems should be undertaken by the market. Regulators should alway be there to raise the bottom line and scare the bad guys. Independent audit makes sure self regulation is effective. It gives it more credibility since it can be checked by independent parties that it delivers on its promises.

10. The tools are not going to build themselves. Get busy!

Building the tools is not easy. Are we prepared? Do we have enough people with the necessary skills to build such tools? Questionable. Our $heriff tool for detecting online price discrimination took more than 2 years and very hard work from some very talented and committed PhD students and researchers. Similarly for our new eyeWnder tool for detecting behavioural targeting. Luckily the Data Transparency Lab community of builders is growing fast. Keep an eye for our forthcoming call for proposals and submit your ideas.


About the author(s)

Nikolaos Laoutaris | TELEFONICA

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