"Unfortunately, by allowing data brokers and other AdTech companies to gather user data on charity pages dealing with profoundly sensitive topics, charities are inadvertently misplacing the trust that their users place in them when visiting their website for help and advice," says Sean McGrath, lead researcher on the project.
"The adtech industry is deeply complex, and it is almost impossible to say where user data ends up or what it might eventually be used for."
ProPrivacy points out that, in many cases, the charities concerned may not even know exactly what trackers they have on their sites. The campaigners are calling on charities to carry out audits of their websites for third-party adtech elements, and to exclude them entirely from any support or advice pages dealing with sensitive topics.
Data brokers then aggregate this deidentified health information and sell it to third party buyers; for example Adam Tanner of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science estimates that a large pharmaceutical company might pay between $10 million and $40 million per year for data, consulting and services from Iqvia alone.
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"When a mother with a drinking problem visits a charity site for help, is it reasonable for her to expect that this information might form some part of an advertising profile that can be sold on to hundreds of third parties including alcohol retailers?" the open letter asks.
"When a teenager seeks advice about their mental health, should they assume this data could eventually form part of their digital DNA?"