Behavioral Advertising 'Warped' Phones, Should Be Banned, Watchdog Says

The influential digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long advocated for online privacy, is now calling for an outright ban on behavioral advertising.

Behavioral targeting -- meaning serving ads to people based on their activity online and across apps -- “is almost single-handedly responsible for the worst privacy problems on the internet today,” the group writes.

Among a host of criticisms, the watchdog says that behavioral advertising has “warped” technological development to the point where mobile phones are designed to snoop on users.

The organization points to mobile phones' advertising identifiers, writing that they “were created for the sole purpose of enabling third-party trackers to profile users based on how they use their phones.”

Those identifiers, which consist of unique alphanumeric strings, “allow brokers and buyers to easily tie data from disparate sources across the online environment to a single user’s profile,” the digital rights group says.

Last year, despite intense opposition by advertisers, Apple began requiring app developers to obtain iPhone and iPad users' opt-in permission before accessing those identifiers.

Google still allows developers to access its mobile ad identifier on an opt-out basis, and apparently will continue to do so for at least the next two years. But the company has said that at some point in the future, it plans to limit data sharing across apps.

At one point, privacy advocates likely would have been satisfied with moves such as Apple's decision to require opt-in consent to mobile tracking. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- along with other privacy watchdogs -- is now going further, arguing that behavioral targeting is so harmful that it should be prohibited altogether.

“Behavioral data is the raw fuel that powers targeting, but it isn’t just used for ads,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes.

The organization elaborates that data collected for ad purposes -- including geolocation data gathered from mobile phones -- can also be accessed by outside agencies, including law enforcement authorities.

What's more, even when tracking data is used for advertising, it can facilitate violations of civil rights laws, the group writes.

“Advertisers can specify a set of people they want to reach, then deputize Facebook  or Google to find people who, based on their behavior profiles, are 'similar' to that initial group,” the organization writes. “If the advertiser’s list is discriminatory, the 'similar' audience will be, too.”

The digital rights group says lawmakers should ban any company that delivers online ads from targeting people based on their web searches, sites visited, content created, geolocation or fitness tracker data, among other factors.

The organization's call for a ban on targeting comes as the Federal Trade Commission and Congress are considering separate proposals to prohibit behavioral advertising.

In January, three Democratic lawmakers introduced the “Banning Surveillance Advertising Act,” which would outlaw most forms of behavioral targeting.

The FTC is also mulling a petition from the group Accountable Tech, which is seeking a ban on behavioral advertising.

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