Google’s Targeted Ads Break Canadian Privacy Laws; Commissioner Promises Reform

Google has received a warning from Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner for falling afoul of this country’s digital privacy laws.

The watchdog was spurred to action by a complaint from a man who claimed that Google was serving him ads based on his health history.

The man, who had been researching machines to alleviate his sleep apnea, later found himself inundated with ads for those same machines as he browsed the Internet. The law in Canada states that targeted advertising cannot be based on sensitive material such as a person’s health, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

When confronted with the offense, Google initially punted responsibility to its advertisers, who they say were misusing the demographic data the search giant collects on its customers. In the end, Google pledged to revise its ad review system that scans for compliance, and to beef up its ad monitoring to ensure advertisers are playing by Canada’s rules. Google says it will implement these changes by June 2014.

Google’s privacy transgressions may be just the tip of the iceberg, indicating a much larger infraction problem throughout the online ad industry. “If an organization as sophisticated as Google had difficulty ensuring compliance with its privacy policy, surely others have the same challenges,” Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier told the Globe and Mail. “We’re going industry wide.”