‘Patternz’ Links Real-Time Ad Bidding to Vast Surveillance 404media.co

Joseph Cox, 404 Media (this page may be login-walled, which 404 justifies for business reasons):

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary apps, including popular ones such as 9gag, Kik, and a series of caller ID apps, are part of a global surveillance capability that starts with ads inside each app, and ends with the apps’ users being swept up into a powerful mass monitoring tool advertised to national security agencies that can track the physical location, hobbies, and family members of people to build billions of profiles, according to a 404 Media investigation.


Patternz’s marketing material explicitly mentions real time bidding. This is where companies in the online ad industry try to outbid one another to have their ad placed in front of a certain type of user. But a side effect is that companies, including surveillance firms, can obtain data on individual devices such as the latitude and longitude of the device. Patternz says it is analyzing data from various types of ad formats, including banner, native, video, and audio.

It is important to be cautious about the claims made by any company, but especially ones which say they are operating at unprovable scale, and market themselves to receive rich government contracts. It does not seem possible to know for sure whether Patternz really processes ninety terabytes of data daily (PDF), for example, but the company claims it creates a direct link between online advertising networks and global surveillance for intelligence agencies. It does not sound far fetched.

Cox’s story builds upon reports published in November by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties — one regarding Europe (PDF) and a slightly different one focused on the U.S. (PDF). Both of those reports cite exploitations of real-time bidding beyond Patternz. All stories paint a picture of an advertising system which continues to ingest huge amounts of highly personal, real-time information which is purchased by spooks. Instead of agencies nominally accountable to the public monitoring the globe with a sweeping, pervasive, all-seeing eye, there are also private businesses in this racket, all because of how we are told which soap and lawn care products we ought to buy.

Even if you believe targeted advertising is a boon for publishers — something which seems increasingly hard to justify — it has turned the open web into the richest and most precise spyware the world has ever known. That is not the correct trade-off.

Probably worth keeping an eye on a case in California’s Northern District, filed in 2021, which alleges the privacy problems of Google’s real-time bidding system amount to a contract breach.