Google broke Canadian privacy law with targeted health ads, commissioner says


Google has promised to do more to protect Canadians from privacy violations by its online advertising service, after an investigation by the country's privacy commissioner.

The office of the privacy commissioner confirmed that Google searches about a medical device resulted in a user being “followed” by health-related ads on unrelated websites.

“We are pleased Google is acting to address this problem. Most Canadians consider health information to be extremely sensitive. It is inappropriate for this type of information to be used in online behavioural advertising,” interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said in a news release today (January 15). 

The investigation was triggered by a January 2013 complaint from a man with sleep apnea. When the complainant visited websites about continuous positive airway pressure machines, a cookie was placed in his browser, leading to the display of ads promoting such devices on other sites using Google ads.

The practice of using cookies in relation to health data runs afoul of the office's online behavioural advertising guidelines as well as Google's own privacy policy.

Google has agreed to address shortcomings in its ad monitoring systems by June. The tech giant has committed to increasing monitoring of "remarketing campaigns" and upgrading its automated review system, for example.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission was involved in the investigation.

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