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Senators demand major corporations share details of foreign buyers of user data

“Ad auctions” send user’s information to hundreds of bidders at once

Updated: April 3, 2021 - 11:59am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A group of U.S. senators is asking numerous major U.S. corporations to reveal the details of foreign buyers of American user data for the purposes of digital advertisement bidding.

When users visit a website, a lightning-quick transaction occurs between website and advertisers, with sometimes hundreds of ad companies bidding on the website's slots for ad banners. The content of those ads is determined by user data sent to each advertiser. 

In a letter this week, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden along with several other senators asked major corporations such as Twitter, Verizon and AT&T for information on the foreign ad buyers with access to U.S. user data. 

“As Congress debates potential federal privacy legislation, we must understand the serious national security risks posed by the unrestricted sale of Americans’ data to foreign companies and governments,” the senators wrote in the letter.

The user information “would be a goldmine for foreign intelligence services that could exploit it to inform and supercharge hacking, blackmail, and influence campaigns,” they wrote. 

Among other requests, the senators asked the corporations for “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.”

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