Commentary

IAB Touts Ad Targeting In Fight Against COVID-19

Ad targeting capabilities are helping the government spread information about COVID-19, the Interactive Advertising Bureau told lawmakers Thursday.

“Through news and digital advertising mediums, the advertising industry has provided great societal benefit by serving as a megaphone that amplifies coronavirus information and messaging,” IAB vice president for policy David Grimaldi said in testimony submitted to the Senate Commerce Committee. “Without data-driven advertising, these messages would be costly and far less effective.”

Grimaldi was one of several expert witnesses to submit written comments to lawmakers, who on Thursday held a “paper hearing” titled “Enlisting Big Data in the Fight Against Coronavirus.” Senators will be able to submit written questions to the witnesses, who will have 96 business hours to submit answers.

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Besides touting ad targeting, Grimaldi argued that tech companies can help combat the pandemic by issuing mobility reports, and mining social media posts for trends.

“Aggregated mobility reports, issued by leading data companies, are broken down by location and display the change in visits to places like grocery stores and parks,” he writes. “Social media websites that have an understanding of social connections across different geographies can find aggregate trends to help researchers gain better insights about when and where the coronavirus might spread more quickly.”

Grimaldi goes on to tell lawmakers the ad industry's current self-regulatory standards preserve consumers' privacy. “Businesses may ... deidentify, aggregate or otherwise protect the privacy of consumers while still allowing for important statistical observations to inform our response to COVID-19,” he writes. 

Some other witnesses expressed reservations about the privacy implications of drawing on personal data to fight the pandemic.

The advocacy group Center for Democracy & Technology wrote that compiling broad information -- like state-level statistics that can't be tied to individuals -- doesn't pose privacy risks.

But the group said that very granular reports about outbreak locations could make it "easy to associate a positive coronavirus status with identifiable people."

Likewise, symptom trackers “may also pose privacy risks if they collect personal information,” the CDT wrote.

University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo warned against using technology for contact tracing, or figuring out who may have been in proximity to an infected person.

“I understand the intuition behind digital contact tracing. But I see the gains in the fight against the virus as unproven and the potential for unintended consequences, misuse, and encroachment on privacy and civil liberties to be significant,” he wrote.

He noted that contact tracing apps collect two “highly sensitive” types of information -- health data and location.

“It seems fair to wonder whether these apps, developed by small teams, will be able to keep such sensitive information private and secure,” he wrote, noting that even the biggest tech companies have had well-publicized privacy glitches. “Today, most household name technology companies -- whether Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Uber -- are under a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission for privacy and security lapses, notwithstanding enormous resources,” Calo wrote.

He added that the current crisis could change people's attitudes toward privacy.

“There is also a simpler danger that Americans will become acclimated to more invasive surveillance partnerships between industry and government,” he wrote. “My hope is that policymakers will expressly ensure that any accommodations privacy must concede to the pandemic will not outlive the crisis.”

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