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Senators Probe Digital Ad Exchanges on Bidding Info Handling

Capitol Hill
(Image credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Some senators have written the major digital ad exchanges to ask how they handle consumer information and whether foreign companies are access personal information via real-time ad auctions.

They also want lists of of foreign-owned or based companies the exchanges have worked with in the past few years.

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Sending the letters were Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) Bill Cassidy, (R-La.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Getting the letters were AT&T, Index Exchange, Google, Magnite, OpenX, PubMatic, Twitter and Verizon.

The letters were dated April 1, but it was no prank.

"Many of the ads we see on our phones, computers, and smart TVs are curated through a process called real time bidding," they said in the letter to AT&T. "In the milliseconds before digital ads are displayed, an auction takes place in which hundreds of companies are able to bid for their ad to be shown. While only one company will win the auction, hundreds of firms participating receive sensitive information about the potential recipient of the ad—device identifiers and cookies, web browsing and location data, IP addresses, and unique demographic information such as age and gender."

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The senators say that few in the public know that some auction participants, once they have gotten access to that personal information, siphon it off so they can compile "exhaustive" dossiers then sold to anybody who can pay the price, including hedge funds, campaigns, and even governments.

They senators want the following information by May 4:

1. "Please identify the specific data elements about users, their devices, the websites they are accessing, and apps they are using that you provide to auction participants.

2. "Please identify each company, foreign or domestic, to whom your firm has provided bidstream data in the past three years that is not contractually prohibited from sharing, selling, or using the data for any purpose unrelated to bidding on and delivering an ad.

3. If your firm has contractual restrictions in place prohibiting the sharing, sale, or secondary use of bidstream data, please detail all efforts to audit compliance with these contractual restrictions and the results of those audits.

4. "Please identify each foreign-headquartered or foreign-majority owned company to whom your firm has provided bidstream data from users in the United States and their devices in the past three years."