US Senators Warn Bit-Tech Companies about Data-Gathering Practices

A group of United States senators from both sides of the aisle sent a strongly worded letter to a few major tech companies and advertisers, warning them about the dangers of collecting user data and sharing it with third parties.

The fact that companies gather data about users and their online activities is no secret. Ads served on websites are often based on collected data, but many people don’t know that it happens in real-time. Nor do they know how the companies treat that data after collection.

Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore, along with Bill Cassidy, R-La., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Mark Warner, D-Va., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, sent a letter to companies including AT&T, Index Exchange, Google, Magnite, OpenX, PubMatic, Twitter and Verizon. The letter describes a process called ‘real-time bidding’ and questions the gathering of ‘bitstream data.

“Many of the ads we see on our phones, computers, and smart T.V.s are curated through a process called real time bidding,” said the senators. “In the milliseconds before digital ads are displayed, an auction takes place in which hundreds of companies are able to bid for their ad to be shown.”

“While only one company will win the auction, hundreds of firms participating receive sensitive information about the potential recipient of the ad—device identifiers and cookies, web browsing and location data, I.P. addresses, and unique demographic information such as age and gender,” they explain.

Some companies that participate in these auctions keep the data they stored and compile it in comprehensive dossiers about users, which is later sold. Moreover, some federal agencies bought this data in the past.

The senators say this data can easily fall into the hand of other countries, looking to gather information and underline the serious national security risks that this marking tactic raises. The companies that received the letter have to answer to several requests byl May 4:

“Please identify the specific data elements about users, their devices, the websites they are accessing, and apps they are using that you provide to auction participants.

Please identify each company, foreign or domestic, to whom your firm has provided bidstream data in the past three years that is not contractually prohibited from sharing, selling, or using the data for any purpose unrelated to bidding on and delivering an ad.

If your firm has contractual restrictions in place prohibiting the sharing, sale, or secondary use of bidstream data, please detail all efforts to audit compliance with these contractual restrictions and the results of those audits.

Please identify each foreign-headquartered or foreign-majority owned company to whom your firm has provided bidstream data from users in the United States and their devices in the past three years.”

Presumably, the Senators will move forward with legislation regulating the use of this type of data, and this letter is part of the initial stages.