Ad giant WPP under fire for "world's largest database"

30th Jun 2011

Claims by a new WPP company that it will sell targeted adverts based on profiles of consumers’ purchasing behaviour held in a vast centralised database, has generated a privacy storm.

UK advertising giant WPP has set up a new company dubbed Xaxis to manage what it is describing as the "world’s largest database" of information about individuals’ online and bricks-and-mortar-based buying habits, which includes demographics, financial and geographic data.

WPP executives told the Wall Street Journal that Xaxis would contain more than 500 million unique profiles, covering virtually 100% of the population in the 11 markets in which it operates, including the UK, US and Australia.

Mark Read, WPP Digital’s chief executive, said: "This is the next stage in advertising. We need to apply technologies to the process of buying media to help our clients target their ads."

The firm attested that all of the information it collected was anonymous, however, and that all of the adverts produced based on its data would include the industry’s privacy icon, which alerts consumers to the fact that they are being targeted so that they can opt out if desired.

Xaxis plans to build up its database by tracking consumers’ behaviour when interacting with adverts online and on brands’ websites. It will also tap into customer databases and buy data from more than two dozen third parties such as BlueKai, which aggregates and sells consumer data online, although the latter will be stored separately to avoid conflicts.

Xaxis chief executive Brian Lesser, said: "The change isn’t so much how we are using the technology, but how we are centralising the audience data. When advertisers work with third parties, they can lose control over that data."

But privacy campaigners warned that the concentration of so much data about individuals in one place was dangerous, even if it had been anonymised.

John Buckman, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Independent: "Knowing the pattern of websites you go to makes it very easy to identify you. The greatest problem with data gathering is not from the people gathering it, but where it goes afterwards. When the cat is out of the bag, you can’t put it back in."

As a result, the safest protection for data was never to collect or store it in the first place. "The principle should be for the minimum amount of data to be captured wherever possible," he added.

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