Life after cookies

March 2024

“The past is a different country: they do things differently there”.

I’m pretty certain when LP Hartley wrote this wistful line the changing world of advertising, data and privacy weren’t foremost in his mind. However, in five years from now, when all the current arguments surrounding the elimination of third-party cookies are long gone, that’s likely how we’ll view the universal use (and abuse) of a simple text file and the data it unlocked.

From one perspective, life after third-party cookies is very simple.

The majority of media is transacted without third party cookies already. Whether by media type, first-party user preferences, device or regulatory mandates, lots of money already moves around without reference to third-party cookies. As the saying goes “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

That’s deliberately rather glib. Some sections of the media still rely upon third-party cookies and not every media owner has an obvious opportunity to build a first-party relationship with consumers. The advantages of an identifier that allows streamlining of experience for consumers whilst delivering audience targeting and optimisation for media owners and advertisers haven’t gone away.

When we look to life after third-party cookies, we need to understand the ways replacement identifiers have evolved to ameliorate the worst aspects of cookies, whilst leaving some advantages in place. One leader I interviewed on this topic back in 2020 said “It’s not the fault of the cookie, it’s what you did with the data” and that’s a useful measure to have in mind when looking at any alternative solutions.

Put very simply, the choices for a brand post the third-party cookie are:

  • Use a different identity approach
  • Buy into use of a walled/fenced garden toolset
  • Use another signal to match between media and audience that isn’t anchored directly to the user, such as contextual.

Alternative identity solutions

The advantage of these is they come with some aspect of permissioning and consumer controls – after the cookie arguments and much legislation in the UK, Europe and US, the industry has learnt these tools are critical. However, it remains a moot point as to whether consumers have much knowledge around any consent or legitimate interest options that are put in front of them – the ICO in the UK is currently clamping down on consent practices. More cookie action

Equally moot is whether the majority of consumers are really that bothered. Much consent gathering is viewed by both parties as an unwanted hurdle in a customer journey. The basic requirements for a consumer to know who has their data, for what purposes and for how long remain, but how to achieve the requisite communication and control is still work in progress.

On a global scale these identity solutions revolve either around a “daisy chain,” using hashed email as the ID link, or use a combination of signals from a device with other attributes to have some certainty around individual identity. Any linkage built with a single identity variable risks being fractured by a single consent withdrawal.

The solutions built on a combination of signals have potentially more durability because they are less dependent on any single signal as the anchor of their fidelity, but many device signals are controlled by browser or operating system vendors, who may obscure or withdraw access to these as Apple has done in recent years.

Walled garden toolset

Much discussion is made around Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative. This is the ambition from Google to deliver some of the advantages of third-party cookies within the Chrome browser whilst not revealing individual data.

It’s been a much longer journey than envisaged at the start when Google first made their announcement in 2020. Google’s commitment, made under the shadow of the Digital Markets Act, has been that they will not remove third-party cookies from the Chrome ecosystem until the UK competition regulator, the CMA, has approved their plans.

As of March 2024, those closely following the travails of Google, the CMA and the opinions tabled from the IAB Tech Lab (amongst others) would be hard pressed to give a cast iron opinion that the current timescale will be met. Privacy and competitive advantage have become inextricably intertwined in these arguments, which is fair. However, slicing through this Gordian Knot was probably not on the CMA or Google’s agenda when they signed up to this process. But that’s about timing, not a permanent stay of execution for the third-party cookie.

Non-user signals

The final approach is to use tools that do not rely on individual level signals. What an individual reads or consumes online says much about them – more than a century of classified advertising is testament to this.

The contextual solutions of 2024 are faster, smarter and better integrated than ever before. They have their downsides – closed loop measurement is a significant challenge hampering some of the campaign optimisations that became common place in the ear of the third-party cookie. And they became common place because they were easy and universal, however, paraphrasing the aphorism, what is measured came to matter, when it should really be the other way round.

And here we come into the greatest change that is being ushered in by the gradual demise of third-party cookies. Measuring what actually matters.

In the late 2010’s when cookies were centre stage as the de facto identifier of choice in media and advertising, their invisible synchronisation gave almost universal, if imperfect, coverage. One simple solution, accessible to all.

As we enter 2024, many alternative identifiers struggle to get much beyond 30% coverage. Contextual solutions can deliver 100% coverage but have their own measurement challenges. This has driven a greater interest in a combination of broad business- and commercial objective-based approaches such as Marketing Mix Modelling (MMM) and attribution-based metrics where appropriate. Advances in data management and analysis have enabled MMM to deliver more frequent insights than the traditional annual deep dive, making it a core component for post cookie media management.

Underpinning any and all of these solutions is the need for first-party data. Whether to build models for customer targeting, collaborate with media and other partners to access first-party data assets or measure more efficiently and effectively, having a structured, accessible and usable set of tools around first-party data is critical to working in the current landscape of solutions.

The growth of cloud storage solutions takes some of the burden away from making this a reality, but the applications used to understand and activate that data asset are many and various. Taking time and advice to build understanding in this area is a knowledge base critical to prospering after the third-part cookie.

Life beyond the third-party cookie is far from fully defined.

Some of the longer-term privacy and competition elements are not that hard to envisage, but exactly how the next 24 months plays out is much, much harder to predict. It’s still really work in progress, especially around measurement and optimisation. For the user of data in advertising and marketing it’s essentially “back to basics”.

Your customer data is more valuable than anyone else’s, so capture and hold it carefully. Test many things in a structured way because the future is about combinations. And know what matters to your business and work out how to measure it properly, not just easily.

Quick Guide to UK GDPR, Marketing and Cookies

January 2024

How UK GDPR and PECR go hand-in-hand

Most have heard of GDPR. However, data protection law existed way before this new kid arrived on the block in 2018. And let’s not forget in the UK, GDPR has an equally important cousin called PECR.

The UK’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) have been around since 2003 before the days of smartphones and apps. Organisations need to consider both UK GDPR and PECR when it comes to marketing and cookies.

Why marketers need to pay attention

There are more fines issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for falling foul of the PECR marketing rules than there are under UK GDPR. Under UK data reform plans, the amount the Regulator can fine under PECR could be set to increase substantially to a maximum of around £17 million. Currently the maximum fine under PECR is £500k. So it’s worth taking notice.

This is a quick overview, and we’d encourage you to check the ICO’s detailed marketing guidance and cookie guidance.

What’s the difference between UK GDPR and PECR?

In a nutshell…


✓ Tells us how we should handle personal data – information which could directly or indirectly identify someone.
✓ Sets out requirements organisations need to meet and their obligations.
✓ Provides us with seven core data protection principles which need to be considered whenever we handle personal data for any purpose, including marketing.
✓ Defines the legal standard for consent, which is relevant for direct marketing
✓ Gives people privacy rights, including an absolute right to object to direct marketing.

One of the principles is that processing of personal data must be lawful, fair and transparent. This includes making sure we have a lawful basis for our activities.


✓ Sets out specific rules for marketing to UK citizens, for example by emails , text messages or conducting telemarketing calls to UK citizens.
✓ Sets out specific rules when using cookies and similar technologies (such as scripts, tracking pixels and plugins).

PECR is derived from an EU directive, and EU countries have their own equivalent regulation which, whilst covering similar areas, may have different requirements, when marketing to their citizens.

We’ve written about the specific rules for email marketing and telemarketing here:
UK email marketing rules
UK telemarketing rules
The ‘soft opt-in’ – are you getting it right

How do UK GDPR and PECR work together?

Direct marketing

Marketers need to consider the core principles of UK GDPR when handling people’s personal information. Furthermore, they need to have a lawful basis for each data activity. Of the six lawful bases, two are appropriate for direct marketing activities; Consent and Legitimate Interests.

Consent: PECR tells us, for certain electronic marketing activity, we have to get people’s prior consent. UK GDPR tells us the standards we need to meet for this consent to be valid. Consent – Getting it right

Legitimate interests: If the types of marketing we conduct don’t require consent under PECR , we may choose to request consent anyway, or we could rely on legitimate interests. For example, marketing to business contacts rather than consumers.

Under GDPR, we need to be sure to balance our legitimate interests with the rights and interests of the people whose personal information we are using – i.e. the people we want to market to. ICO Legitimate Interests Guidance 

What about cookies?

PECR requires opt-in consent for most cookies or similar tech, regardless of whether they collect personal data or not. And we’re told this consent must meet the UK GDPR standards.

In simple terms, the rules are:

✓ Notify new users your website/app users about your use of cookies or similar technologies and provide adequate transparent information about what purposes they are used for.
✓ Consent is required for use of cookies, except a narrow exclusion for those which are ‘strictly necessary’ (also known as ‘essential’ cookies).
✓ Users need to be able to give or decline consent before the cookies are dropped on their device and should be given options to manage their consents at any time (e.g. opt-out after initially giving consent).

Changes are on the cards

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is currently progressing through Parliament. It’s not law yet, but if passed will usher in some changes to both UK GDPR and PECR.

The core data protection principles aren’t going away, nor are the lawful bases under UK GDPR, nor the rules for email marketing, text messages and telemarketing. However one proposal could see charities being able to take advantage of the soft opt-in for email/text marketing. What could the marketing ‘soft opt-in’ mean for charities?

PECR fine for invalid marketing consent

January 2024

What lessons can we learn from the HelloFresh case?

HelloFresh used a marketing consent statement with a clear opt-in box for customers to tick, but the ICO has ruled the wording of the statement did not meet the requirements for consent to be specific and informed. The regulator has issued a £140k fine.

Sometimes, the ICO issues fines under PECR based on only a handful of complaints, however in this case thousands of complaints were raised via the ICO spam reporting tool.

The online meal order business was found to have sent over 80 million marketing email and text messages between September 2021 to February 2022 without first collecting valid consent.

When relying on consent for direct marketing under PECR, consent must meet the UK GDPR requirements; a freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication for an individual’s wishes, given by a clear affirmative action.

What ‘consent’ statement was used?

The consent statement HelloFresh used at the time was as follows:

“Yes, I’d like to receive sample gifts (including alcohol) and other offers, competitions and news via email. By ticking this box I confirm I am over 18 years old”.

This was relied on to send marketing emails and texts to customers with an active or paused subscription, and to former customers who’d cancelled their subscription within the last 24 months, but had given their ‘consent’ for marketing.

Users were able to update their communications preferences via an app, but the settings did not allow users to set preferences individually by channel e.g. phone, text and/or email.

☛ Consent: Getting it Right

Key ICO findings

Two points were highlighted as being particularly relevant in this case:

  • for consent to be valid it is required to be “specific” as to the type of marketing communication to be received, and the organisation, or specific type of organisation, that will be sending it.
  • ‘consent will not be “informed” if individuals do not understand what they are consenting to. Organisations should therefore always ensure that the language used is clear, easy to understand, and not hidden away in a privacy policy or small print.

The ICO found HelloFresh’s statement did not satisfy the requirement for consent to be “specific” and “informed” because:

  • Consent for marketing was not clear, as it was bundled in with other aspects. It combined an age confirmation statement and consent to receive free samples with consent for marketing by email.
  • It failed to tell people about text messages and thereby failed to collect valid consent for marketing by text message.
  • Customers were not told they could receive direct marketing messages for up to 24 months after they’d cancelled their subscription.

Key takeaways (no fresh veg included I’m afraid)

✓ Collect consent separately for different aspects /activities – don’t bundle everything into the same tick box

In my opinion using; I’d like to receive sample gifts (including alcohol) and other offers, competitions and news via email would have been okay for email marketing.

The big problem was adding; By ticking this box I confirm I am over 18 years old. This clearly should have been separate, and the ICO found this was likely to ‘unfairly incentivise’ customers to agree.

✓ Collect consent separately for each marketing media channel you want to use for communications e.g. telephone, text and email

In my opinion, HelloFresh may have avoided regulatory scrutiny if the statement had at least mentioned ‘via email and text’. The safest approach (from a regulatory perspective) is to collect consent by channel. Also in our experience, people may want email, but not texts, so separating them can optimise email opt-in.

✓ Don’t assume you can continue sending marketing to people after they have cancelled a subscription with you

The last point is interesting and a little surprising. The ICO is indicating that even if a customer has consented to marketing when they take out a subscription, this may not be valid once the customer ends that subscription – unless people are made aware of this when they give their consent. I doubt this point would ever have been picked up if HelloFresh had clearly collected consent for marketing by text in the first place.

Picking through the detail of ICO fines under PECR is always worth doing. The findings can give a nudge to check you aren’t doing anything similar. The full details can be found in the ICO’s enforcement notice.

Google Analytics: GA4 vs Universal Analytics – What will change?

July 2022

Will GA4 improve compliance?

For any users of Google Analytics, you will have started to see some messaging warning that the Universal Analytics tools will be retired in 2023 and that now is the time to migrate across to Google Analytics 4.

 What is Google Analytics 4 (GA4)? 

GA4 is a new property that helps analyse the performance of your website and app traffic and will replace Universal Google Analytics. It was first released in October 2020 although it’s only now that the campaign to migrate across has started in earnest. 

 Key components include: 

  • Event-based tracking: Universal Analytics is session-based, while GA4 is event–based. In other words, the ability to track events like button clicks, video plays, and more is built in with GA4, while this requires advanced setups in UA. This comes from the premise that page views aren’t the sole important metric.
  • Cross-device tracking: UA was built around desktop web traffic, while GA4 gives businesses visibility into the customer journeys across all of their website and apps.
  • Machine learning: GA4 uses machine learning technology to share insights and make predictions.
  • Privacy-friendly: UA data relies heavily on cookies, GA 4 does not.

Crucially, on July 1, 2023, standard Universal Analytics properties (the previous version of Google analytics) will no longer process data. You’ll be able to see your Universal Analytics reports for a period of time after July 1, 2023. This means that to have a continuous history of activity, it makes sense to move across to the new GA4 platform sooner rather than later. 

What privacy improvements have been made?

GA4 came with a set of new privacy-focused features for ticking GDPR boxes including: 

  • Data deletion mechanism. Users can now request to surgically extract certain data from the Analytics servers via a new interface. 
  • Shorter data retention period. You can now shorten the default retention period to 2 months (instead of 14 months) or add a custom limit.  
  • IP Anonymisation. GA4 doesn’t log or store IP addresses by default. They allocate an anonymous and unique user id to each record
  • First-party data cookies. Google uses first-party cookies which means they’ll still be supported by browsers
  • More data sampling. Google is doing more data sampling using AI to gain more granular analytics insights – this is more privacy friendly and uses models to investigate deeper insights
  • Consent mode. The behaviour of Google tags is managed based on user consent choices. 
  • Collecting PII. Google does not allow the collection of PII in GA4 –  this is considered a violation of Googles terms of service
  • Data sharing with other Google Products. Any linking to Google advertising products requires explicit opt-in consent and a prominent section on the privacy notice 

Is Google now compliant?

Possibly in limited circumstances. If Google anonymises the data by allocating a user id that is never referenced with any other data then we can argue the data is anonymous and therefore not subject to GDPR regulation.

In some instances, this may be the case if you are doing simple tracking and effectively treat your digital platforms as an ivory tower. In most instances, it is not!

If you are advertising and can then link the id to other data, there is the potential to identify individuals and therefore the information becomes personal data and subject to GDPR.

This means that all the usual user consent rules apply and opt-in consent is required to analyse activity.

The major difficulty for Google is that data is exported to the US where it is deemed, by the EU, that Google does not adequately protect EU personal data from US surveillance rules. 

Previously, Google relied on the Privacy Shield framework to ensure that it remained compliant. Since that has been invalidated in 2020, Google has struggled to achieve compliance and has faced a number of fines.          

In particular, Google Analytics does not have a way for:

·       Ensuring data storage within the EU

·       Choosing a preferred regional storage site

·       Notifying users of the location of their data storage and any data transfers outside of the EU

What next?

Ideally, Privacy Shield 2.0 will be introduced soon! Talks have started but they’re unlikely to be swift! The US government has been talking about making its surveillance standards “proportional” to those in place in the EU. This may not be good enough for CJEU. 

In the meantime, implement GA4 as it is more privacy-focused than Google Universal Analytics and hope that US and EU come to an agreement soon. There is a risk in using GA4 and you might want to consider using other solutions.

Consumers increasingly comfortable sharing data

March 2022

Trust and transparency remain fundamental drivers

In the modern data-driven economy, businesses need people to share their data. Marketers need to understand what makes their audience tick and be willing to share.

But how important is trust in the data exchange? How do attitudes to data sharing differ across international borders and between age groups?

New research shows people increasingly understand the benefits of sharing their data; a clear value-exchange has never been more important. Younger people are shown to have less privacy concerns than older generations.

These are just some of the findings of the ‘Global Data Privacy: What the Consumer Really Thinks 2022’ research report. The report represents 28 marketing associations whose reach stretches to more than half the world’s population – including the UK Data &  Marketing Association (DMA). The latest findings build on previous studies, giving us trends useful over the past decade.

Here are some key points from the global and UK-specific reports.

Rise of the ‘unconcerned’

The research categorises people into three groups:

  • Data unconcerned – people who have little or no concerns about their data privacy. The UK report shows a notable rise in this group, almost doubling over the past decade from 16% in 2012 to 31% in the latest study. So nearly a third of consumers are not unduly concerned about their privacy.
  • Data pragmatists – people who are happy to share data with businesses as long as there’s a “clear benefit in doing so”. This group still makes up the largest group of consumers, but has declined in the past decade from 53% to 46%.
  • Data fundamentalists – People who are unwilling or highly cautious about sharing their personal information. This group is in decline reducing in the past decade from 31%  to 23%.

The chart below illustrates UK trends over the last 10 years:

Data unconcerned

Younger people are most comfortable sharing their data

Growing numbers of consumers claim to feel more comfortable with the idea of exchanging personal information with companies, although there’s a significant variation across age groups.

Younger people (18-44) are most likely to feel comfortable sharing data. However those aged 55+ have actually become less comfortable sharing data.

Trust and transparency remain fundamental

Trust in an organisation remains the most important factor driving consumer willingness to share personal information. This comes significantly above factors such as product/service benefits, price and value perceptions.

The chart below shows UK trends for the factors driving consumers to share their data:

Trust remains vital

Consumers continue to seek transparency. Today, 77% of global consumers claim that transparency around how their data is collected and used is important to them.

Industry is still seen to benefit more than consumers from the data economy

The majority of consumers globally see data exchange as essential for the running of society. Over half (53%) of consumers across all markets agreed ‘the exchange of personal information is essential for the smooth running of modern society’.

However, consumers globally continue to believe that industry benefits more than they do from data sharing, despite a small shift towards greater value being perceived by consumers. On average (across the 10 trended markets) 71% of consumers believe that ‘industry benefits more from data sharing’. In general, younger people tend to be more likely to understand and recognise the benefits from sharing their data.

This suggests we still have a long way to go to truly enable consumers to fully realise the benefits from sharing their data, or they could see this as an unfair trade.

Importance of the data exchange

The findings once again illustrate the importance of the data exchange – the moment when businesses request or otherwise collect personal data from individuals. Whilst increasingly many consumers understand the intrinsic value of their data, they want easy access to clear information about how their data will be used and need to understand what product, service or value benefits they’ll get from sharing it.

The age profile of your customers is crucial here. It’s clear businesses need to work hard to win trust and provide clear information for older age groups.

Alex Hazell, Head of Privacy and Legal at Acxiom (the DMA’s UK research partner):

‘We must drive home the value exchange between brands and people – in other words, strive harder to help people understand what they receive in return for sharing their data. For marketers, we must continue to make that value clear, whether it’s in more straightforward scenarios like relevant discounts and offers, or in more complex processing such as cross domain personalised experiences that surprise and delight.’

Concerns about online privacy remain, although reduced

As the digital economy has expanded and matured, more and more consumers are engaging with online data exchange. The proportion of UK consumers who claim to have ‘high levels of concerns’ about online privacy has fallen to 69%.

Younger consumers want to support smaller businesses

The role data sharing can play in driving more competitive economies is a compelling reason for many UK consumers to share personal information. 52% of UK consumers stated they would be more likely to exchange personal data to provide a competitive advantage to smaller companies. This sentiment was most pronounced for the under 45s.

DMA Chief Executive, Chris Combemale gave a summary the UK findings:

‘Overall, concern with data privacy is in decline, while the levels of happiness with the amount of data shared and comfort with the notion of data exchange are on the rise. In addition, public awareness and understanding of the role that data exchange plays in the modern digital economy has increased dramatically since 2012.’

“As the UK’s digital economy, alongside digital markets around the world, continue to advance and mature, there has been an increase in public ease and engagement with data sharing and the digital world. Younger people are digital natives – this is reflected in both their willingness to share data and acceptance of its importance to modern society.”

The times they are a changin’

The research highlights some interesting trends. You can read more detail in the Global report or UK report.

While consumers may be increasingly comfortable with sharing their data, it’s clear they’re most likely to do this with brands they trust, who’ve been upfront and honest about how they handle personal information and clearly demonstrate the benefits of the data exchange.

Google Analytics Processing Data in US – is this a problem?

January 2022

Austrian DPA has found that continuous use of Google Analytics violates GDPR

Once again, Google is under fire from a regulator in Europe. This time in Austria. 

The Centre for Digital Rights (noyb), which is based in Austria and led by Max Schrems, filed 101 model complaints following the Schrems II decision in 2020. 

Following the complaint about Google Analytics, the Austrian regulator has determined that the continuous use of Google Analytics violates GDPR: 

“The Austrian Data Protection Authority (DSB) has decided on a model case by noyb that the continuous use of Google Analytics violates the GDPR. This is the first decision on the 101 model complaints filed by noyb  in the wake of the so-called “Schrems II” decision. In 2020, the Court of Justice (CJEU) decided that the use of US providers violates the GDPR, as US surveillance laws require US providers like Google or Facebook to provide personal details to US authorities. Similar decisions are expected in other EU member states, as regulators have cooperated on these cases in an EDPB “task force”. It seems the Austrian DSB decision is the first to be issued.”  Source noyb

What does Google Analytics do?

Google Analytics operates by using cookies to capture information about website visitors. Google Analytics is free to use and it’s ideal for businesses who want to know more about:

  • Who visits their website
  • How their website is used
  • What’s popular on their website, and what’s not
  • Whether visitors return to their website

What information does Google capture?

You are likely to see a range of Google cookies that do different jobs. Here’s a short list showing some possible cookies that might be used:

  • _ga: Used to distinguish users and retained for 2 years
  • _gtd: used to distinguish users and retained for 24 hours
  • _gat: Used to throttle request rate and retained for 1 minute
  • AMP_TOKEN: Contains a token that can be used to retrieve a Client ID from AMP Client ID service and retained from 30 seconds to 1 year
  • _gac_<property-id>: Contains campaign related data for the user. This is used when Google Analytics and Google Ads are connected and retained for 90 days

These cookies range from simple identification to remarketing and advertising cookies which allows you to track and remarket individuals through Google Ads. The more one strays into using this data for remarketing, the more intrusive the data capture becomes. 

What does this mean in reality?

Since the advent of GDPR, the burden to demonstrate that consent has been freely given has become greater. 

In the UK, when the ICO published their cookie (and other technologies) guidance in 2019, many large websites became instantly non-compliant. The requirement to demonstrate that consent had been freely given had become stronger. 

The ICO also clearly highlighted that Performance Cookies (such as Google Analytics) required consent to be used. 

Since 2019, companies have used a variety of methods to notify users about the existence of Google Analytics cookies. Some compliant, some less so. 

It is also clear that many have taken a risk-based approach to what they should do. The ICO’s own guidance provides a level of ambiguity on the topic:

The ICO cannot exclude the possibility of formal action in any area. However, it is unlikely that priority for any formal action would be given to uses of cookies where there is a low level of intrusiveness and low risk of harm to individuals. The ICO will consider whether you can demonstrate that you have done everything you can to clearly inform users about the cookies in question and to provide them with clear details of how to make choices. Source: ICO

What are the issues?

  1. Google is a data processor unless you enable data sharing with Google Ads at which point you become a shared controller – ensuring that your privacy policies reflect these differing relationships is important. 
  2. Google stores most data in USA – since Privacy Shield became illegal this has presented some problems. Google is relying on SCC’s but the main concern is that the US has surveillance laws that require companies such as Google to provide US Intelligence agencies with access to their data. 
  3. Google does use data to improve their services. For a user, this can sometimes seem creepy. 

What could Google or US government do?

A rather obvious solution would be for Google to move the processing of EU data outside the US to server centres in Europe where the US government cannot exercise the same surveillance rights as in the US. 

Alternatively, the US government could introduce better protection for private citizens. Although this was unthinkable under the previous presidential regime, it may be conceivable under Biden/Harris. It still feels like a long shot. 

Realistically it’s quicker and more realistic for the Google’s of this world to set up data centres in Europe. Saas providers such as Salesforce addressed this issue years ago and it feels like it’s about time Google and Facebook did too. 

What should you do? 

  1. Make sure you have correctly set up your cookie banner on your website. Technically, visitors should opt-in to Google Analytics and this permission should be captured before any processing takes place
  2. Provide a clear explanation of what data you are collecting and what that data is used for in an accessible cookie notice supported by a coherent privacy policy. 
  3. Make sure you describe all the Google cookies you are using – from simple tracking through to remarketing and advertising. Ideally each cookie would be included including the technical details, duration and purpose.
  4. If you use Google Analytics a number of settings have been introduced that help protect privacy:
    • Turn on the IP anonymising tool. It removes the last three characters of the IP address and renders the address meaningless. 
    • Make use of the data deletion tool – this is a bulk delete tool and can’t be used for one user
    • Introduce data retention policies – there is a default setting of 26 months before data is deleted but maybe you can delete data sooner. 
    • Consider the use of alternative tracking tools that do not rely on the use of cookies or transferring data overseas. A quick search resulted in a non-exhaustive list of analytics tools that don’t rely on cookies. There will be other suppliers: 
      • Fathom
      • Plausible
      • Simple Analytics
      • Insights
      • Matomo

In conclusion

  • At the moment, this finding by Austrian DPA does not apply in the UK. However it’s possible other DPAs may follow suit. 
  • Having said that, there are plenty of lessons to learn about how to work with Google Analytics and other US-based companies who insist on holding data in the US
  • It’s essential that your cookie notice and privacy policy clearly set out what tools are being used and what data is being processed. This is particularly important if you are linking Google Analytics to Google Ads for remarketing. 
  • Given that the world is slowly turning against cookies, maybe now is the time to start looking at less intrusive performance tracking solutions. 


ICO Opinion on Ad Tech – Old wine in a new bottle?

December 2021

Does the ICO Opinion piece tell us anything new?

The ICO has published an “Opinion” which can be interpreted as a shot across the bows for any Ad Tech company who is planning to launch their new targeting solutions for the post-third-party cookie world. 

If these companies thought new targeting solutions would get waved through because they don’t involve third-party cookies, it’s clear that Google’s difficulties with their Sandbox solution say otherwise. 

Google is currently knee-deep in discussions with both Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) and ICO to come up with a targeting solution that is fair to consumers whilst also avoiding the accusation of being anti-competitive. 

In the ICO’s opinion piece they set out the clear parameters for developing these solutions in a privacy-friendly manner. You won’t be too surprised to hear all the usual concerns being re-heated in this discussion. To quote the ICO:

  1. Engineer data protection requirements by default into the design of the initiative
  2. Offer users the choice of receiving adverts without tracking, profiling, or targeting based on personal data. 
  3. Be transparent about how and why personal data is processed across the ecosystem and who is responsible for that processing
  4. Articulate the specific purposes for processing personal data and demonstrate how this is fair, lawful, and transparent
  5. Address existing privacy risks and mitigate any new privacy risks that the proposals introduce

This opinion piece is the latest publication from the ICO in a relatively long-running piece of work on the use of cookies and similar technologies for the processing of personal data in online advertising. In their original report in 2019, the ICO reported a wide range of concerns with the following which needed to be rectified:

  • Legal requirements on cookie use;
  • Lawfulness, fairness, and transparency;
  • Security;
  • Controllership arrangements;
  • Data retention;
  • Risk assessments; and
  • Application of data protection by design principles. 

You can read the back story here

The state of play in 2021

Since the ICO has started its investigations in 2019, the market has continued to develop new ways of targeting advertising that does not rely on third-party cookies. The net result is that the world has moved to a less intrusive way of tracking which has been welcomed by ICO. Some examples include: 

  • With Google Chrome’s announcement re: cookies, there is an expectation that third-party cookies will be phased out by end of 2022. 
  • There have been increases in the transparency of online tracking – notably Apple’s “App Tracking Transparency” ATT
  • There are new mechanisms being developed to help individuals indicate their privacy preferences simply and effectively
  • Browser developers are introducing tracking prevention in their software.  A notable example is the Google Privacy Sandbox which will enable targeting with alternative technologies.

How should we interpret this opinion piece?

A lot of what has been included is information from the 2019 reports. In effect, it’s a summary of previous activities plus additional material to bring you up to date. Although it is a rather long piece, there is some clear guidance for the way forward for developers of new solutions. 

Furthermore, it is bluntly warning technology firms that they are in the ICO’s sights: 

“In general, the Commissioner’s view is that these developments are not yet sufficiently mature to assess in detail. They have not shown how they demonstrate participants’ compliance with the law, or how they result in better data protection outcomes compared to the existing ecosystem” Source: ICO

Data protection by design is paramount – no excuses for non-compliance this time

The ICO opinion clearly flags to developers that they will accept no excuses for developing non-compliant solutions. In the past, there have been difficulties because the Ad Tech solutions have been in place for some time with the data protection guidance being retrofitted to an existing ecosystem. 

With the demise of third-party cookies and the advent of a variety of new solutions, there can be no excuse for ensuring that privacy is engineered into the design of the solutions. 

It explicitly highlights the need to respect the interests, rights, and freedoms of individuals. Developers need to evidence that these considerations have been taken into account.  

Users must be given a real choice

In the first instance, users must be given the ability to receive adverts without tracking, profiling, or targeting based on personal data. There must be meaningful control and developers must demonstrate that there is user choice through the data lifecycle. 

Accountability – show your homework

There is an expectation that there will be transparency around how and why personal data is processed and who is responsible for that processing. In the current ecosystem, this is largely impossible to achieve and there is no transparency across the supply chain. 

Articulate the purpose of processing data

Each new solution should describe the purpose of processing personal data and demonstrate how this is fair, lawful, and transparent. Can suppliers assess the necessity and proportionality of this processing? The 2019 report highlighted that the processing appeared excessive relative to the outcomes achieved. How will processors change their ways? 

Addressing risk and reducing harm

As a start, it’s important to articulate the privacy risks, likely through a DPIA, but also explain how those risks will be mitigated. The previous ICO reports indicated their disappointment with the low volume of DPIAs produced by Ad Tech providers. This needed to change. 

To conclude with a useful developer checklist

The ICO provides a checklist of how to apply these principles in practice. You can probably jump to this section if you really want to know what is expected: 

  1. Demonstrate and explain the design choices.
  2. Be fair and transparent about the benefits.
  3. Minimise data collection and further processing.
  4. Protect users and give them meaningful control.
  5. Embed the principle of necessity and proportionality.
  6. Maintain lawfulness, risk assessments, and information rights.
  7. Consider the use of special category data.

The ICO is very clear that the industry must change. There is no appetite to approve solutions that fundamentally adopt the same flawed ways of working. There is also a clear acknowledgment that some solutions are potentially anti-competitive so a partnership with the CMA will continue. You have been warned!

Minimise your data with maximum permissions

March 2021

Deliver successful marketing campaigns without hoarding data

This might seem like a contradiction in terms. How can you minimise the volumes of data you keep whilst also maintaining good levels of marketing permissions?

The answer, of course, is to only keep the data you need. Less is more. I’ll say that again – less is more. However, the challenge for many marketers is to understand which data to discard and which data to keep.

Figuring out which data is needed takes time and effort and draws on some old-fashioned skills we learnt in the pre-internet era to maintain data accuracy and assess what variables/values actually drives a sale.

Before the ubiquitous email, which appears to cost nothing, we used to make some very difficult decisions about who to contact because each contact cost a fortune. Now is the time to re-discover some of those skills and cut down on those emails and digital ads, whilst rebuilding trust with prospects and customers.

1. Data accuracy

Arguably the most boring job for any marketer is to keep their customer and prospect data up to date and accurate.

Questions to consider:

  • How many records hold inaccurate data?
  • Are they worth keeping?
  • How recently did that prospect engage with you?
  • Will they ever engage again?
  • Are the marketing permissions up to date and valid?

Like de-cluttering your house, it’s difficult to throw away data but keeping data for too long can attract large fines and a bad reputation.

2. Effective retention policies

If you understand the patterns of purchase and sale you’ll have a good idea of when people who are customers are no longer engaged and either need to be refreshed or removed.

Asking if people want to be removed from a database after a long period of inactivity is a good idea. Why keep people on a list who don’t want to hear from you?

Questions to ask:

  • Have you reviewed your retention policy and refreshed permissions?
  • Do you have a regular routine in place to identify and update permissions once they reach their retention policy limit?
  • Do you regularly review the responses you generate from the older data sets?
  • Based on your findings, should you adjust the retention policy periods?

3. Reduce the collection of data points

If I provide a phone number when I place an order, what happens to that data?

Unless it’s for a carrier I’ll always provide an inaccurate number. It makes more sense to explain exactly why you need every single data point and provide a “what’s in it for me” reason why this data should be collected. The completion rate will be greater with more accurate information.

Questions to ask:

  • Do have a clear plan for how every single data point is used?
  • Have you communicated that intention clearly?
  • Have you explained clearly the “what’s in it for me”?
  • Which data can be discarded?

4. Special category data

Special category data can be explicitly collected or inferred from the combination of other data sets. This is a particular challenge in Adtech where the quantity of data collected through third party cookies is, frankly, mind blowing.

If you’re able to establish  sexuality from which websites someone uses this, potentially, becomes special category data. Keeping any special category data presents an additional risk and should be carefully considered, whilst consent for marketing needs to be sought under any circumstance. If in doubt get rid of it.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you really need to know anything sensitive about your prospects and customers?
  • What difference will knowing the information make to your ability to sell your products and services?

5. Preference centres

The notion you should give your customers and prospects the choice to manage their preferences in an open and transparent way is at the heart of data protection legislation.

There are technology solutions from a wide variety of providers to create preference centres for cookies, as well as managing marketing preferences for emails, direct mail and so on.

Presenting this information in an easy-to-understand format can feel like a formidable challenge and there’s sometimes the temptation to hide it or just not bother to explain clearly enough.

Not explaining or hiding information is never a great idea, as there is a direct link between openness and transparency and trust.

“Doing the right thing” and building trust is a No 1 priority for many brands and they see it reaps dividends in greater loyalty and repeat purchase.

Not only that but the afore-mentioned technology solutions have relatively inexpensive options for smaller or medium sized businesses. Cost should not be an impediment.

Questions to consider:

  • Are all your marketing and cookie preferences managed centrally?
  • Do you know what all the cookies on your website do?
  • Do you know what happens to the data that is captured by third party Adtech providers?
  • Have you completed a DPIA for Ad Tech activity?
  • Do you have a compliant cookie notice and preference centre with the permissions options applied correctly?

6. Understanding the ROI of your campaigns

Being able to analyse the customer/prospect journey from first point of data capture through to a final sale is the holy grail. An apparently cost-efficient lead at the front end may not translate into high margin sales in the end.

Equally, being able to understand what influences a purchasing decision and what environment is most successful will allow you to filter your marketing effort against fewer key variables.

As the ICO clearly stated in their review of RTB, the sheer volume of data in use by Adtech providers feels disproportionate to the outcome.

Questions to ask:

  • Can you calculate an end-to-end ROI on customer transactions?
  • Do you know which variables will influence purchase more than anything else?
  • Have you done some modelling of your own customer data to create anonymised look alike segments to be used with contextual advertising?

7. How do you move on from third-party cookies?

As we know, Google will stop supporting third party cookies in 2022. This places an immediate pressure on advertisers to focus on their own first party data.

Immediate questions to ask:

  • Do we have any first party data?
  • How else do we add to what we already know?
  • Can we ask our customers to share more data? What interests them, what content do they consume, how do they shop?

If we’re able to create segments from our own data, the opportunity to use that information to create anonymised look-alikes will improve targeting efficiency. We are seeing a proliferation of providers who are using different variables to target customers which does not even involve large quantities of cookie data and this trend is set to grow.

If you understand your data well and create meaningful segments for targeting from first party data, which has been volunteered by customers, marketing teams will be in a strong position to deliver more with less.


Data protection team over-stretched? Find out how we can help with our flexible no-nonsense Privacy Manager Service.