Senators Ask Big Firms to Reveal Details on Foreign, Domestic Buyers of User Data

April 3, 2021 Updated: April 4, 2021

A bipartisan group of senators is questioning eight major U.S. corporations about the transmission of American user data to foreign bidders, usually used for digital advertising.

“We write to seek information about your company’s sharing of Americans’ personal data in order to understand how that information may be obtained and exploited by foreign governments to the detriment of our national security,” the letter (pdf), sent on April 1 by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), reads.

The senators seek information specifically about the “real-time bidding” process, which refers to the milliseconds before ads are shown to people on their electronic devices when hundreds of companies participate in an auction for their advertisement to be displayed.

“Few Americans realize that some auction participants are siphoning off and storing ‘bidstream’ data to compile exhaustive dossiers about them. In turn, these dossiers are being openly sold to anyone with a credit card, including to hedge funds, political campaigns, and even to governments,” the letter states.

The other senators who signed the letter are Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“Over the past year, multiple reports have indicated that a number of federal agencies have purchased personal data derived from mobile apps and other online services, in ways that potentially merit closer scrutiny. But the United States is not the only government with the means and interest in acquiring Americans’ personal data. This information would be a goldmine for foreign intelligence services that could exploit it to inform and supercharge hacking, blackmail, and influence campaigns,” the letter reads.

The eight companies being addressed are AT&T, Google, Twitter, Verizon, Index Exchange, Magnite, OpenX, and PubMatic.

They then request certain specific information about the auction participants, foreign and domestic.

The four questions read:

  1. Please identify the specific data elements about users, their devices, the websites they are accessing, and apps they are using that you provide to auction participants.
  2. Please identify each company, foreign or domestic, to whom your firm has provided bidstream data in the past three years that is not contractually prohibited from sharing, selling, or using the data for any purpose unrelated to bidding on and delivering an ad.
  3. If your firm has contractual restrictions in place prohibiting the sharing, sale, or secondary use of bidstream data, please detail all efforts to audit compliance with these contractual restrictions and the results of those audits.
  4. Please identify each foreign-headquartered or foreign-majority-owned company to whom your firm has provided bidstream data from users in the United States and their devices in the past three years.

The senators want the questions answered by May 4.

Samuel Allegri
Samuel Allegri