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Targeted Google Ads Catch Attention of Federal Privacy Commissioner

April 28, 2014

By Jennifer McKenzie, Tamarah Luk, and Ajit Arora 

Have you ever visited an online store to look at a jacket only to find that ads for that same jacket follow you from site to site? This targeted advertising has become ubiquitous across the Internet. A jacket is fairly innocuous, but what if you were searching online for something more personal, like a product for a medical condition, and ads for those products followed you around? This is what one Canadian noticed when performing research online for medical devices to help with his sleep apnea. After he left the sites, he was targeted with ads for those devices on completely unrelated websites. He complained to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada ("OPC") that the practice was a breach of his privacy.

On January 15th, the OPC released the results of its investigation into Google’s ad services, which concluded that the practice of using sensitive information to deliver targeted ads violated the OPC's Online Behavioural Advertising Guidelines. In its investigation, the OPC found that when the complainant visited the site for sleep apnea, a cookie was placed on his browser, which caused ads for medical devices to be displayed when he visited unrelated sites. The practice was against Google's own privacy policy, which states Google would not associate a cookie with certain categories of sensitive information, such as health information. 

Google identified the problem as relating to "remarketing campaigns", which allow advertisers to target ads to recent visitors of their websites. Google further acknowledged that certain advertisers using its services do not follow the policy. In response to the OPC’s concerns and recommended actions, Google committed to correct the problem through increased monitoring and training, and by upgrading its automated review system by June 2014. 

To learn more about online behavioural advertising, click here to read the OPC’s Online Behavioural Advertising Guidelines. The Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada also issued Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioural Advertising last fall, which provides consumers with choices on how to opt-out of online behavioural advertising and provides resources for Canadian businesses. Visit to learn more.

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