Publishers Clearing House Faulted For Privacy Violations

Publishers Clearing House appears to have violated the ad industry's self-regulatory privacy standards for websites as well as mobile apps, according to a new opinion issued by a watchdog administered by the Better Business Bureau.

The direct marketing company's mobile app for Android enabled outside ad networks to collect location data that was accurate within 15 meters, according to the Online Interest-Based Advertising Accountability Program. The app didn't inform consumers about the location-data collection or allow them to opt out, according to the watchdog.

Publishers Clearing House said it didn't itself collect the data or explicitly authorize other companies to do so, according to the self-regulatory group. But the direct marketing company “confirmed that third-party ad networks were collecting location data for advertising purposes without the company’s authorization,” the accountability program wrote in an opinion issued Monday.

After hearing from the watchdog, Publishers Clearing House updated its app to disable the collection of location data and also instituted new employee training measures.

Publishers Clearing House also collected data from consumers who visited its site, but allegedly failed to provide “enhanced” notice explaining behavioral targeting, according to the self-regulatory group.

Providing "enhanced" notice requires adding a separate link that takes visitors directly to an opt-out site. That separate link is supposed to appear on every page where data about visitors is collected. The BBB's accountability program warned publishers five years ago to provide “clear, meaningful and prominent” links on all pages where third parties -- like ad networks and exchanges -- collect data about visitors in order to serve them with targeted ads.

Publishers Clearing House had a privacy policy on its site, and had a page operated by TrustArc where consumers theoretically could opt out of ad targeting by outside companies. But the opt-out page only listed eight companies, and the direct opt-out mechanism only worked for “just over half” of those companies, according to the watchdog.

“For the remaining listed companies, the TrustArc page indicated that they had not yet been integrated to the TrustArc interface and provided links to their respective privacy policies,” the opinion states.

The watchdog also noted that more companies were collecting data than were listed on TrustArc's opt-out page.

The result was that consumers who wanted to opt out of behavioral targeting “would only be able to opt out from a small fraction of the third parties, even if they clicked on every privacy policy linked through the TrustArc disclosure.”

Publishers Clearing House responded to the watchdog's inquires by revising disclosures and investing in new technology and employee training to keep the desktop out-out mechanism current, according to Monday's opinion.

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