A recent academic paper out of Europe, “Selling Off Privacy at Auction”, is an absolutely fascinating and extraordinarily detailed treatment of what happens to data in a real-time bidding (RTB) ad environment. This is not one of those high-level analyst reports based more on buzzwords than data. The authors — Lukasz Olejnik, Minh-Dung Tran, and Claude Castelluccia from France’s digital research institute INRIA — took apart the client-side JavaScript to show exactly what’s happening behind the scenes.

Just like making sausage, it both will surprise you and make you rethink the end product. Different stakeholders will have different takeaways:

  • Publishers may be astonished at the prevalence of “cookie licking” that goes on. This is a term for ad bidders who have no intention of placing a winning bid simply participating in the process to gain free intelligence about a publisher’s audience for purposes of retargeting. The value of audiences in leaky environments is an order of magnitude lower than what publishers could get through direct channels. And they also will see how outmatched they are in terms of controlling data leakage.
  • Most consumers will not understand the underlying technology, but the conclusions are pretty clear: many third parties go through extraordinarily lengths to track users as they travel the Internet for purposes of targeting them.

This paper reinforces the need for outside “honest brokers” to become more involved in multiparty data transactions and bring greater trust and transparency to collection and tracking, particularly with regard to first-party data ownership and consumer privacy. The current marketplace presents mostly binary options: participate or opt-out, with the latter choice resulting in significant revenue loss (for publishers) or degraded user experience (for consumers). We believe that there should be a many levels of gray between black and white to permit participants to dial in to their level of comfort.