There are two trends that are currently reshaping the online display advertising industry. First, the amount and precision of data that is being collected by Advertising and Analytics (A&A) companies about users as they browse the web is increasing. Second, there is a transition underway from “ad networks” to “ad exchanges”, where advertisers bid on “impressions” (empty advertising slots on websites) being sold in Real Time Bidding (RTB) auctions. The rise of RTB has forced A&A companies to collaborate with one another, in order to exchange data about users and facilitate bidding on impressions.
These trends have fundamental implications for users’ online privacy. It is no longer sufficient to view each A&A company, and the data it collects, in isolation. Instead, when a given user is observed by a single A&A company, that observation may be shared, in real time, with hundreds of other A&A companies within RTB auctions.
To understand the impact of RTB on users’ privacy, we propose a new model of the online advertising ecosystem called an Interaction Graph. This graph captures the business relationships between A&A companies, and allows us to model how tracking data is shared between companies. Using our Interaction Graph model, we simulate browsing behavior to understand how much of a typical web user’s browsing history can be tracked by A&A companies. We find that 52 A&A companies are each able to observe 91% of an average user’s browsing history, under modest assumptions about data sharing in RTB auctions. 636 A&A companies are able to observe at least 50% of an average user’s browsing history. Even under very strict simulation assumptions, the top 10 A&A companies still observe 89-99% of an average user’s browsing history.
Additionally, we investigate the effectiveness of several tracker-blocking strategies, including those implemented by popular privacy-enhancing browser extensions. We find that AdBlock Plus (the world’s most popular ad blocking browser extension), is ineffective at protecting users’ privacy because major ad exchanges are whitelisted under the Acceptable Ads program. In contrast, Disconnect blocks the most information flows to A&A companies of the extensions we evaluated. However, even with strong blocking, major A&A companies still observe 40-80% of an average users’ browsing history.
Read more about the winners in the Future of Privacy Forum’s December 17, 2018 Press Release on the Annual Privacy Papers for Policymakers Award.