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Canada says Google broke law by snooping health info to serve ads

Targeting users based on their ailments violates privacy – who knew?

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An investigation into Google's online advertising practices by Canadian regulators has found that the Chocolate Factory served ads based on users' sensitive health-related information, in violation of the country's privacy laws.

"Most Canadians consider health information to be extremely sensitive," Chantal Bernier, Canada's Interim Privacy Commissioner, said in a statement. "It is inappropriate for this type of information to be used in online behavioural advertising."

Canada's probe – conducted with assistance from the US Federal Trade Commission – was launched in January of last year after a man complained to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner that he was being "followed" by ads for health devices.

The man claimed that after using Google Search to look up information about devices for treating sleep apnea, he began seeing ads for sleep apnea devices on sites with completely unrelated topics – such as comic strip websites – a pattern he said continued for up to a month.

The Office's own tests confirmed the man's claims and that the targeted ads persisted regardless of whether the browser or even the computer was restarted.

Under Canadian privacy law, advertisers cannot collect sensitive information, such as personal health information, without users' explicit consent. In this case, the sleep apnea ads relied on implied consent, which in Canada is a no-no.

In negotiations with the Privacy Office, Google said that the display criteria and users lists for ads in its network are determined by individual advertisers, but admitted that although marketing based on sensitive information is against its policies, "certain advertisers or third party buyers can use remarketing products in error."

Google will not have to pay any fines because of the flap, but it has agreed to make changes to ensure that future ads are served in compliance with Canadian law.

The ad-slinging titan says it will provide more information about its policies and privacy laws to advertisers, in addition to offering more training to its staff about how to address potential policy violations. It will also improve its automated ad review system and increase monitoring of ad campaigns to make sure they are in compliance.

Google says that all of these changes will be fully implemented by June 2014.

The Reg contacted Google to ask whether its agreement with Canada will affect how it serves ads in the US, the UK, or other regions, but so far we've yet to hear anything.

As for Canada's Office of the Privacy Commissioner's investigations into online advertising practices, however, it seems its talks with Google may only be the beginning.

"We also have concerns about whether other advertising networks are complying with Canadian privacy law," Interim Commissioner Bernier said. "We will be contacting various advertising stakeholders in the near future to share these investigation results and remind them of their privacy obligations." ®

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