3 min read

Last week, Cookiebot, a company that provides organizations cookie and online tracking consent solution, published a report named Ad Tech Surveillance on the Public Sector Web. The report highlighted that ad tech companies are pervasively tracking EU citizens who visit non-ad funded government and public sector websites.

These companies are systematically tracking the online activity of EU citizens even on sites sharing sensitive health information such as pregnancy, sexual health, cancer or mental illness.

How does this tracking happen?

Modern websites often include multiple third-party JavaScript technologies to enable features like video players, social sharing widgets, web analytics, and galleries. These scripts in addition to providing the feature can also act as Trojan horses, opening backdoors to the website code. And, through these backdoors tech companies can insert their ad trackers.

For instance, the Health Service Executive (HSE), the organization that manages the delivery of all public health services in Ireland, installed a popular social sharing tool named ShareThis on its official website. This tool automatically adds a button on each web page providing users a quick way to share information across social media platforms. But, in the background, it also acts as a “Trojan Horse” by releasing ad trackers from more than 20 ad tech companies into every web page it is installed.


What were the key highlights of this report?

Google tracks twice as much as any other company

The report remarked Google as “the Kingpin of Tracking” revealing that the tech giant tracks more than twice as much as any other company. Google controls the top three tracking domains in the study namely YouTube.com, DoubleClick.net, and Google.com. Using the combination of these domains, Google tracks website visits to 82% of the EU’s main government websites.

The report further states that YouTube automatically loaded a tracker from DoubleClick.net, Google’s primary ad serving domain, on government websites of 22 EU member states. “Tracking scripts from youtube-nocookie.com were identified on the Italian, Slovenian, Austrian and Greek government websites, which means these websites are using YouTube’s artfully-named “Privacy-Enhanced Mode” to limit tracking of their citizens. It turns out that this does not “enhance privacy” as much as they might expect,“ says the report.

Tracking on government websites

Cookiebot conducted “deep domain scans” on 184,683 pages of all EU official government websites and found ad trackers on 89% of these web pages. The following are the key findings when they analyzed EU government websites:

  • Out of 28 EU member states, 25 government websites had ad trackers.
  • The highest number of tracking companies were found on government websites of the French (52), Latvian (27), Belgian (19) and Greek (18).
  • Spanish, German and the Dutch were at the other end of the spectrum with no commercial trackers found.

Tracking on public health service sites

GDPR in Article 9 clearly mentions that the processing of information related to a person’s health condition, which comes under “special categories of personal data”, should be prohibited. However, 52% of EU public health service web pages had commercial trackers. The following are the key findings when they analyzed public health service sites:

  • Out of this 52%, the Irish health service shows 73% of their landing pages contain ad trackers.
  • UK, Spain, France, and Italy had ad trackers on 60%, 53%, 47%, and 47% of landing pages respectively.
  • Though Germany showed lowest ad tracking on their web pages, one-third of their landing pages had trackers.
  • The analysis also showed that a single French webpage about abortion being monitored by 21 different companies and another German webpage about maternity leave monitored by 63 companies.

To know more in detail, read the full report by Cookiebot.

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