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Privacy Commissioner investigates Google ad system

An investigation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has found that the online advertising service operated by Google used sensitive information about individuals' online activities to target them with health-related advertisements, contrary to Canadian privacy law.

The investigation was undertaken when the office received a complaint from a man who was "followed" across various websites by ads for sleep apnea treatments after searching Google for information about the disorder. Testing by the office confirmed that the issue exists and is due to a cookie set by Google in the user's browser.

The online behavioural advertising guidelines issued by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner two years ago state that advertisers should avoid collecting sensitive personal information, such as individuals' health information, for the purpose of delivering tailored ads. Google's privacy policy states the company will not associate a cookie with sensitive information to deliver tailored ads.

In response to the investigation, Google has agreed to provide more information to advertisers conducting this kind of campaign, to increase its monitoring of campaigns for policy violations, to offer more training to its staff and to upgrade its automated review system. The company plans to implement these recommendations by June.

"We are pleased Google is acting to address this problem," said interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier. "Most Canadians consider health information to be extremely sensitive. It is inappropriate for this type of information to be used in online behavioural advertising. As Canadians spend more and more time online, they create a digital trail that can reveal a great deal about a person. Organizations such as Google must ensure privacy rights are respected in this complex environment. We also have concerns about whether other advertising networks are complying with Canadian privacy law. We will be contacting various advertising stakeholders in the near future to share these investigation results and remind them of their privacy obligations."

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