Privacy concerns over Southend Council website after claims visitors could be tracked

Visitors to Southend Council’s website could be being tracked by advertising companies even when seeking help from services relating to addiction, disability, and poverty, it has been claimed.

Independent research has said Southend Council’s website is operating an advertising tool known as DoubleClick, which tracks and stores visitors’ details to later pass it to targeted advertising companies.

This form of advertising, known as “real-time bidding”, was labelled “unlawful” by the UK’s information commissioner in June due to breaches of GDPR but little has been done to enforce the ruling.

Brave’s report, published on Tuesday, claims almost every local authority in the country is allowing at least one company to learn about the behaviour of people visiting their websites, including Southend.

The company has called it “mass profiling” and warned “once your interests and online activity is out in the wild you have no idea how it might be used”.

It is hoped that the research will compel the information commissioner to take action against real-time bidding.

But Southend Council has claimed no such data storage or advertising is operating on their website.

A council spokesperson said: “We take the collection and security of personal information seriously and as part of that we do not sell or show adverts on our website.

“However, we do have third party cookies on our site including Google Analytics but we do not have this integrated with the Google DoubleClick platform.

“Google Analytics gathers information on how visitors use our website and with this information we create reports to help improve our site, but not for advertising purposes. These cookies collect anonymous information including the number of visitors to the site, what pages they visited and when.

“Users of our website can opt out of this by visiting www.southend.gov.uk/cookies. We also use Google maps and Google Translate.

“As many councils do, we also use a system called Govmetric which allows people to provide feedback on their website experience. This is also classed as a third party cookie, but we have been assured that no data collected by them is shared with anyone other than ourselves.

“We are also looking further into why this research suggests we have real time bidding cookies on our site when we do not integrate with the Google DoubleClick platform.

“Furthermore, as part of an upgrade to our website to meet Government accessibility standards, we will be updating and improving our cookie policy which will allow users to opt out of cookies much more easily.”

Councillor Martin Terry (Ind), who oversees public protect and customer contact, said: “This is the first I have heard about it. This is a matter of concern and I will be picking it up with the relevant team.

“It would concern me if any information is being used by third parties and I will look into this myself. There is no way Southend Council would have intentionally gotten involved in this.”

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Mick Ferris

Editor Email: [email protected]