Skip navigation
test 3

Is the ABC abusing our privacy through tracking?

Thumbnail image

In recent weeks, controversy has ramped up over the ABC’s new iview policy requiring audiences to register compulsory log-in accounts. Critics say that this will allow audience data to be shared without consent to third parties such as Facebook and Google, and to others you may never have heard of. The Alumni’s technical expert Peter Marks shares some but not all of the critics’ concerns. Here he explains the issues.

By Peter Marks, 19/3/2022

A YouTube video titled “Who’s watching what you watch?” has been published by cryptographer Vanessa Teague.

Teague uses the criticism of the ABC’s move to require logins as a jumping off point to show the tracking that is done by iview when viewed through the web browser.

In the video, she shows that iview sends tracking information to Google that includes what you’re watching. Although she doesn’t show much detail, she also lists other analytics services including Tealium which is a company that offers to work with Facebook to improve advertising targeting.

In the video, Teague also shows that if you’re logged in to the ABC a scrambled (“hashed“) version of your login email address is sent to Google tracking and she further demonstrates that turning off all the options in the ABC’s Data & Privacy settings for your ABC account does not stop the sending of data to Google and Tealium. Also mentioned, but not shown in detail, is tracking by OzTAM.

A reason she gives as to why the sharing of detailed viewing history of ABC iview users is objectionable is that, in an election campaign, the data gathered can be used to narrowly target people with election campaign ads. Different ads are shown to different groups according to their sympathies.

Teague, who has considerable experience in privacy protocols and election security, is currently CEO of Thinking Cybersecurity and an Associate Professor (Adj.) at the ANU’s Research School of Computer Science. She says she loves the ABC and is simply calling on the national broadcaster to accurately disclose to audiences the data they are collecting and sharing with third parties. She says she requested this information under Freedom of Information via the website but the request was refused.

I urge you to watch the video yourself.

The Bigger Picture

In my opinion, Teague has presented some valid criticism but the situation should be considered in a wider context.

Most of us have now embraced digital technologies so a great deal of data tracking is already available to various services.

ABC’s tracking is significantly less intrusive than some competing media sites.

Apple’s privacy focussed Safari browser detects and reports on trackers. Here’s what Safari sees at (5 trackers):

Here’s what tracks (51 trackers):

The gold standard is zero trackers, sites such as Wikipedia achieve this.

Presumably Wikipedia does track article views but they don’t offer tracking directly to third parties.

Is tracking really necessary for the ABC?

It is important for the ABC to know what content is being most consumed in order to tune its resources to meet the needs of users. Also, users who log in can enjoy a better experience on iview: the ABC can recommend programs that they are likely to enjoy, and can enable them to stop viewing half way through a program, and continue later on a different device.

But, as Vanessa Teague has pointed out, allowing third party trackers on a site means that our data is at the mercy of not just the privacy policy of the ABC but also the policies and practices of the third parties.

Some tracking on Australian video sites appears to be relatively non-intrusive, OzTAM for example, is an industry-wide standard used to measure video viewing across all outlets. Its privacy policy shows that it collects a wide variety of information but states that it does not sell this without your permission.

As for others, it’s a case of checking individually, unless the ABC is transparent about its arrangements.

What the ABC should do

The ABC must gather data about consumption of its content in order to learn about how its audience is using the content. (In fact, I’d argue that the ABC should have users log in to its sites and apps in order to make good recommendations and allow for multi-platform continuation of viewing). The use of the ABC login as a unique identifier for third party trackers is dangerous, even though it is anonymised, as it may be possible to re-link to the person through other sites.

In my view, the ABC can do better. They should aim for a gold standard where tracking is done internally rather than by any external services such as Google who are in the business of targeting advertising at valuable content consumers.

Importantly, too, the ABC user preferences should be fixed to operate as expected – ‘opting out’ should mean exactly that.

As a public broadcaster, the ABC must offer a service that ensures privacy for those members of the public who do not want their data shared more widely. And it must do so transparently.

Peter Marks is a Director of ABC Alumni and Victorian State Coordinator.

Continue Reading

Read More