A new year often starts with good resolutions. Some resolve to change a certain habit, others resolve to abandon an undesired trait. Mobile app makers, too, claim to have user behavior and their preferences at their heart. From dating to health to music, their promise is to add convenience to consumers’ lives or to offer support when needed. The bad news is that the ecosystem of the underlying ad tech industry has not changed and still does not respect user privacy. A new report, called Out of Control: How Consumers Are Exploited by the Online Advertising Industry, published today by the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC), looks at the hidden side of the data economy and its findings are alarming.

Discrimination, Manipulation, Exploitation

Scrutinizing 10 popular apps in Google Play Store, such as Grindr, Clue, and Perfect365, the NCC report’s technical analysis reveals comprehensive tracking and profiling practices. Personal data is systematically collected and shared with dozens of third-party companies without users’ knowledge. EFF’s recent report on third-party tracking documents additional ways that companies profit from invading our digital privacy.

The NCC’s legal analysis concludes that companies have not obtained valid consent from consumers to process their data under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and consumers have no practical option to avoid being tracked. The report highlights that profiling practices may not only be used to personalize advertising, but could also result in discrimination, manipulation, and exploitation of users.

Actions by Consumer and Digital Rights Organizations

Current tracking and profiling practices translate into exploitative practices in contradiction to the GDPR, the report says. While the research was carried out in the EU, the analyzed apps are available around the globe, and many are owned by companies headquartered in the U.S. Responding to the report, consumer and digital rights organizations globally are notifying their data protection authorities.

What Needs to Be Done: Strong Privacy Rights and Alternative Solutions

EFF has long advocated for critical and tangible privacy rights for users, including the right to opt-in consent, the right to know, and the right to data portability. Rules should not only exist on paper but users should also be empowered to bring their own lawsuits against companies that violate their privacy rights.

The NCC report shows that a huge surveillance industry has built up around us. Instead, we need a user-oriented tech ecosystem that does not treat user data like a free resource to be exploited. To build alternative solutions to the incumbent online advertising systems, we need new laws that create strong privacy rights.

Report and materials: https://www.forbrukerradet.no/out-of-control/