The UK’s data watchdog is resuming its investigation over the use of real-time bidding (RTB) in the adtech industry – but observers fear it won’t take meaningful action any time soon.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) paused its last May, claiming it needed to concentrate on the disruption caused to businesses by the Covid-19 epidemic. It said it didn’t ‘want to put undue pressure on any industry’.

Now, though, it says it’s planning a series of audits focusing on digital market platforms and claims it will issue assessment notices to specific companies in the coming months.

“Data broking also plays a large part in RTB and following our data broking investigation into offline direct marketing services and enforcement action for Experian in October 2020, we will be reviewing the role of data brokers in this adtech eco-system,” says Simon McDougall, ICO deputy commissioner for regulatory innovation and technology.

However, he warns: “The investigation is vast and complex and, because of the sensitivity of the work, there will be times where it won’t be possible to provide regular updates. However, we are committed to publishing our final findings, once the investigation is concluded.”

Since the introduction of GDPR, the adtech industry has been subject to dozens of complaints across Europe that personal data is being processed without explicit consent – including data on race, sexuality, health status or political affiliation.

“Sharing people’s data with potentially hundreds of companies, without properly assessing and addressing the risk of these counterparties, also raises questions around the security and retention of this data,” says McDougall.

The Open Rights Group (ORG) has been pushing for action, and went so far as to sue the ICO after it closed complaints from the ORG’s Jim Killock and Michael Veale earlier this year.

“It makes no sense to close complaints, as if they are resolved, and then to carry on investigating the industry,” says Killock.

“By wrongfully closing our complaints, the ICO may believe that it has no timescale or need to bring these complaints to a close. We therefore will be continuing to press for resolution through the Tribunal. The case has already been fast-tracked to the Upper-Tribunal, given the importance of the issues involved.”

By lan