governments are allowing more than 100 advertising companies, including
to surreptitiously track citizens across sensitive public sector
websites, in apparent violation of their own EU data protection rules, a
study has found.
browser-analysis company Cookiebot found ad trackers — which log users’
locations, devices and browsing behaviours for advertisers — on the
official government websites of 25 EU member states. The French
had the highest number of ad trackers on its site, with 52 different
companies tracking users’ behaviour.
YouTube and DoubleClick, Google’s advertising platform, accounted for
three of the top five tracking domains on 22 of the main government
also studied the websites for EU public health services, finding that
people seeking health advice on sensitive topics such as abortion, HIV
and mental illness were met with commercial ad trackers on more than
half of the sites analysed.
three-quarters of the 15 pages scanned on the Irish health service
website contained ad trackers, while 21 different companies were
monitoring a single French government webpage about abortion
services. Sixty-three trackers monitored a single German
about maternity leave. Google DoubleClick trackers were found
on health pages providing information on HIV
also found that while many governments mentioned Google analytics
cookies, which are used to run the website, in their privacy policies,
they did not disclose any advertising-related cookies.
shows how pervasive and broken online ad tracking remains, and how
urgently we need to fix it
website has a responsibility to inform their user about any data
collection and processing happening on their website,” said Eliot
Bendinelli, a technologist at Privacy International, the
non-profit. “The fact that these websites . . . can’t comply with
this basic requirement shows that the current tracking ecosystem is out
commercial trackers appeared to be gaining access to these public
websites through backdoor tactics, including via social sharing widgets,
such as ShareThis.
found a lot of adtech trackers were smuggling in other third parties
through these plug-ins, without the consent of users or knowledge of the
governments themselves,” said Daniel Johannsen, chief executive of
Cookiebot. “Although the governments presumably do not control or
benefit from the documented data collection, they still allow
the . . . privacy of their citizens to be compromised, in violation of
the laws that they have themselves put in place.”
experts say the personal data that adtech companies are harvesting from
visitors to EU government sites could be combined with data from other
sources to draw detailed
of each unique user — which could in turn be sold to data brokers.
histories are very intimate information. They show what we’re worried
about, what our plans are, what we are interested in, our daily
routines, the focus of our work,” Mr Bendinelli said. “Government
websites are . . . a case that’s especially concerning. They offer
crucial information and services that people depend on and often can’t
choose not to use.”
Naranjo, senior policy adviser at the civil rights organisation European
Digital Rights in Brussels, said Cookiebot’s findings raised questions
about whether the public websites were in violation of the EU-wide
General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect last year.
need an analysis from EU data protection officers of how this behaviour
is in line with GDPR,” he said. “It’s not obvious to me how this is
based on any legal grounds . . . It shows how pervasive and broken
online ad tracking remains, and how urgently we need to fix it.”
said: “Our policies are clear: if website publishers choose to use
Google web or advertising products, they must obtain consent for cookies
associated with those products.” They added that Google did not permit
publishers to “build targeting lists based on users’ sensitive
information, including health conditions like pregnancy or HIV”.
Facebook spokesperson said the investigation “highlights websites that
have chosen to use Facebook’s Business Tools, for example, the Like and
Share buttons, or the Facebook pixel”.
Business Tools help websites and apps grow their communities or better
understand how people use their services,” they added. “Facebook
considers it the responsibility of the website owner to inform users of
which companies may be tracking them.”