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UK’s ICO faces legal action after closing adtech complaint with nothing to show for it

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The UK’s data watchdog is facing a legal challenge after it took the decision to quietly close a complaint against the adtech industry’s high velocity background trading of personal data.

The legal challenge was reported earlier by Politico.

The original complaint — challenging the adtech industry’s compliance with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — was filed to the ICO in September 2018 by Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, and Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights at the University College London.

A series of RTB complaints have been filed with regulators across Europe over the past two+ years.

The crux of the complaints is that real-time-bidding (RTB) auction systems cannot comply with the GDPR’s requirements to provide adequate security for people’s data.

In a report last year the ICO voices its own “systemic concerns” about the adtech industry’s use of personal data in the RTB component of programmatic advertising.

Last December one of its deputy commissioners, Simon McDougall, further warned the industry of the need to reform, writing: “We have significant concerns about the lawfulness of the processing of special category data which we’ve seen in the industry, and the lack of explicit consent for that processing.”

So it’s not clear why the UK regulator has chosen to close the complaint when it still hasn’t issued a decision on the substance.

The ICO did not respond to specific questions TechCrunch put to it about this — but sent us this statement: “We are aware of this matter, which will be decided by the Tribunal in due course. Consideration of concerns we have received forms part of our work on real time bidding and the Adtech industry.”

Earlier this year the regulator said it would “pause” its ongoing investigation into RTB on account of the coronavirus pandemic. The probe appears to still be on ice — raising further questions as to why the ICO would choose a moment of self-imposed inaction to close the complaint now.

In a series of letters to the complainants’ legal team, which we’ve reviewed, the ICO writes that it believes it has investigated the matter “to the extent appropriate”, and further claims the probe has “assisted and informed the ICO’s broader regulatory approach to RTB since September 2018”.

“Please therefore consider this to be confirmation of the outcome of your client’s complaint in line with s.165(4)(b) of the Data Protection Act 2018,” it adds, reiterating its position that the complaint is now concluded.

Killock and Veale voiced concerns that the move is a tactic by the ICO to close down their ability to challenge any future action it may (or may not) take in the area of RTB.

The follow-on concern is that the regulator does not intend to take robust enforcement action against what RTB complainants have referred to as the biggest data breach of all time — and is instead seeking to clear the road of first-order objectors.

In a letter to the complainants, dated September 23, 2020, the ICO writes that it intends to “recommence our industry wide investigation into RTB in due course” — but gives no detail of when that might happen nor any hint of any ultimate outcome more than two years after the complaint was filed.

“We are taking legal action against the ICO, as we believe that data processing being too complex and illegal is more reason to uphold the law, not less. Individuals can’t currently opt out of online tracking — and the ICO shouldn’t be able to opt out of regulating,” Veale told TechCrunch.

“After the ICO produced a report in response to the complaint of Jim Killlock and myself illustrating just how illegal RTB was, they appear to have concluded the appropriate action was to hold some stakeholder meetings, use none of their powers, and claim that they have discharged their obligations to the complainants to uphold the law. RTB continues to be outrageously illegal.”

“They shut our complaint down without doing anything,” Killlock also told us. “They say they will still take action, yes, but they removed the obligation to do something by closing our complaint.”

“They think the Information Tribunal is a soft touch, and won’t listen to anyone seeking to challenge an ICO decision about a Complaint of this nature,” he added. “The Information Tribunal has in fact stated that it will only look at procedural matters relating to this kind of complaints. They are wrong to do this, and this is something we also address [in the challenge].”

The ICO has already faced months of criticizism from European privacy experts over the lack of regulatory action to enforce regional data protection standards around RTB.

And while the regulator has voiced concerns about the lawfulness of practices underpinning behavioral advertising — and urged industry reform — it’s been a bark that hasn’t been backed up with any bite.

The upshot in the UK is Internet users’ personal data continues to be processed at vast scale by the ad targeting industry with no way for people to know where their information might be ending up nor how exactly it’s being used.

Concerns about the mass surveillance of Internet users to power behavioral advertising have been stepping up for years. Personal data that’s being routinely traded for ad targeting via RTB has been shown to include highly sensitive data such as health information, sexual orientation and political affiliation.

On the flip side, government and public health websites in Europe have also been shown sharing data on users with ad trackers — as have commercial sites that offer help with sensitive issues like mental health.

Earlier this month the European Parliament called for tighter controls on microtargeting — in favor of less intrusive, contextual forms of advertising.

As well as the inherent insecurity of RTB systems broadcasting people’s information over the Internet, another objection in Europe concerns whether or not all the players in the adtech chain are obtaining legally valid consent to process people’s data for ad targeting — as they are supposed to under GDPR.

Last month preliminary findings by the Belgium data protection authority cast doubt on the legality of an industry standard tool for gathering Internet users’ consent to ad targeting — with an investigation finding that the IAB Europe’s Trust and Consent Framework (TCF) fails to comply with GDPR principles of transparency, fairness and accountability, and also the lawfulness of processing.

It also found the TCF does not provide adequate rules for the processing of so-called special category data (e.g. health information, political affiliation, sexual orientation etc) .

Data protection authorities in Ireland, meanwhile, are continue to investigate RTB — opening a probe into how Google’s online ad exchange is processing people’s data in May last year. Though Ireland’s Data Protection Commission is also under fire for regulatory inaction.

The complaint was filed there at the same time as in the UK — meaning it’s also over two years old and still no decision to show for it.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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The UK approves the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

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The UK government has approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 for emergency use, following the recommendation of the national medicines regulator.

The UK is the first country to approve the vaccine for widespread use — paving the way for some of the most “high risk” citizens, such as elderly care home residents and front-line healthcare workers, to get the jab before the end of the year.

The BBC reports that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said the vaccine is safe to be rolled out from next week. Though it’s not yet clear exactly who will get the first doses.

 

The request for emergency authorization was submitted by BioNTech and Pfizer to the MHRA last month — as well as to regulators in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S., none of which has yet given the go ahead.

In a statement, Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, described the Emergency Use Authorization in the U.K. as “a historic moment in the fight against COVID-19”.

“This authorization is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win, and we applaud the MHRA for their ability to conduct a careful assessment and take timely action to help protect the people of the U.K.,” he said. “As we anticipate further authorizations and approvals, we are focused on moving with the same level of urgency to safely supply a high-quality vaccine around the world. With thousands of people becoming infected, every day matters in the collective race to end this devastating pandemic.”

The UK approval is based on trial data, including a worldwide Phase 3 clinical study carried out by BioNTech/Pfizer  which demonstrated an efficacy rate for the vaccine of 95% and raised no serious safety concerns.

The vaccine was also shown to be effective both in participants who had not previously contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and those who had — based on measuring efficacy seven days after the second dose.

Efficacy was also reported as consistent across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics, with an observed efficacy in adults age 65 and over of more than 94%, the companies said.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted the news of the formal authorization this morning — writing that the vaccine will “begin to be made available across the UK from next week”. A second tweet anticipated how vaccination in general will “ultimately” enable a return to economic life as usual.

The UK has ordered 40M doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, or enough vaccine for 20M people (as it requires two doses), though it will take time for the country to receive all the doses ordered.

“The delivery of the 40 million doses will occur throughout 2020 and 2021, in stages, to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines across the geographies with executed contracts,” the companies wrote in a press release.

“Now that the vaccine is authorized in the U.K., the companies will take immediate action to begin the delivery of vaccine doses. The first doses are expected to arrive in the U.K. in the coming days, with complete delivery fulfilment expected in 2021,” they added.

The UK’s National Health Service is gearing up for what NHS chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, described as “the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”. Per the BBC, some 50 hospitals are on standby and vaccination centers in venues such as conference centres are also being set up.

In comments to journalists this morning, health secretary Matt Hancock said 800,000 doses of the virus will be available next week, with the bulk of the rollout coming in the new year. “We’ll deploy it at the speed that it’s manufactured,” he added.

Hancock said priority for the first batch of jabs will be given to “the most elderly” and people in care homes, including their carers. “Then essentially it comes down the age range. NHS staff are also high on that priority list, and also the clinically extremely vulnerable… those that are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus,” he added.

“The Emergency Use Authorization in the U.K. will mark the first time citizens outside of the trials will have the opportunity to be immunized against COVID-19,” said Ugur Sahin, M.D., CEO and co-founder of BioNTech in a supporting statement. “We believe that the roll-out of the vaccination program in the U.K. will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalized.

“Our aim is to bring a safe and effective vaccine upon approval to the people who need it. The data submitted to regulatory agencies around the world are the result of a scientifically rigorous and highly ethical research and development program.”

One remaining question is how long the vaccine’s protection lasts. Given how quickly the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine has been developed — in a matter of months — there’s no long term data available to answer that yet.

The same is true of COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed by other companies.

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Spotify launches ‘2020 Wrapped’ with new features including quizzes, badges and, yes, stories

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Spotify is today launching its 2020 Wrapped personalized experience — the company’s popular year-end review of users’ favorite artists, songs, genres, and podcasts. This year, however, Spotify is making a few changes. For starters, Wrapped will be exclusively available on mobile for Spotify users, while a web experience will offer a version of Wrapped for non-Spotify users for the first time. To reflect Spotify’s continuing investment in podcasts, Wrapped will also this year include a deeper look into users’ podcast listening habits. And it will include new features, like in-app quizzes, a “Story of Your 2020” dedicated to users’ top song of the year, new Wrapped badges, personalized playlists, customization options for social sharing, and other additions.

The feature will launch in the Spotify mobile app for iOS and Android in global markets to give users their year-end insights. But non-users will get a taste of Wrapped with a web version, where Spotify will share its broader global listening trends, including the most-streamed artist, top three podcasts, and other popular music insights.

Image Credits: Spotify

Spotify on Tuesday had shared some of these trends, noting that Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny had claimed the top spot with more than 8.3 billion streams in 2020. The top three podcasts, meanwhile, were The Joe Rogan Experience, TED Talks Daily and The Daily.

This year, podcasts got more detailed in Spotify Wrapped, as well. Though the feature had included podcast insights in prior years, this aspect of the experience is being expanded in 2020 to include added metrics, like how many minutes users spent listening to podcasts in 2020 and the most “binge-worthy” podcasts of the year.

Image Credits: Spotify

A new in-app quizzes feature, meanwhile, will allow users to guess before the trends Wrapped reveals. These quizzes will let Spotify listeners guess which were their top podcasts, top artists and even what decade’s songs they streamed the most. Users will also be able to see what new genres they discovered during the year.

Image Credits: Spotify

Stories, naturally, will make an appearance in this year’s Wrapped, too. The company was recently spotted as testing a Stories feature in its app — a continuation of tests Spotify began last year with Storylines and again in January 2020, when it first began to allow influencers to post Stories to introduce their playlists. Now, those influencers also include musicians themselves, according to the latest tests.

In Wrapped, Spotify is introducing “Story of Your 2020,” which shows your top song from the year from its first stream to its 100th stream and several milestones in between.

Image Credits: Spotify

Premium users will gain access to new badges this year based on how they listened. Some will earn the “Tastemaker” badge, if their playlists gained followers; others will earn a “Pioneer” badge for listening to songs first, before they hit 50,000 streams. The third badge, “Collector,” will be awarded to those who added some number of songs to their playlists this year.

Image Credits: Spotify

Along with Wrapped, users will get access to three new personalized playlists. One, called Your Top Songs, features users’ favorite tracks from the year. Missed Hits, meanwhile, will recommend popular songs in 2020 that you didn’t listen to, but Spotify thinks you would like. And for listeners in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, a third playlist called On Record will introduce a mixed media experience that highlights users’ top 2020 artists.

As always, a big part of Wrapped is the social sharing component. This year, users will be able to personalize their Wrapped sharing card by picking from among four color choices before posting it to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.

2020 Wrapped arrives today on iOS and Android. Later today, Spotify will also roll out its Wrapped creator experience for podcasters and artists.

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Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank, picks up additional £60M in funding

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Monzo, the U.K. challenger bank now with more than 4.8 million customers, has closed another £60 million in funding, priced the same as and effectively an extension of the its previous top-up round in June.

This saw Monzo valued by private investors at around £1.2 billion, marked by industry observers as a down round because it was lower than the upstart bank’s previous — perhaps overheated — valuation before the Coronavirus pandemic skewed leverage in favour of investors or forced a legitimate fintech market correction, depending on your perspective.

The new funding comes from a clutch of new backers including Deliveroo and Stripe investor Novator, Kaiser, and TED Global, as well as existing investor Goodwater. They join the likes of Y Combinator, General Catalyst, Accel, Passion, Thrive and Stripe, who all re-invested earlier this year.

It means Monzo has raised £125 million in funding since COVID-19 struck (an additional £5 million was quietly added during the last top up), and this current extension will be seen as good news for the bank as it looks to continue growing and increasing revenue lines beyond interchange fees.

To that end, Monzo shared some latest numbers with TechCrunch. In addition to approaching 5 million customers overall, it now has more than 60,000 business users — up from 25,000 signups in March — and more than 100,000 customers across its paid-for current accounts, Monzo Plus and Monzo Premium.

Adds Monzo CEO, TS Anil, in a statement given to TechCrunch: “We’ve raised £125 million this year, achieved strong organic growth and are now nearing five million customers, all while becoming the most switched to bank in the U.K. and the top rated for overall service. This news demonstrates the confidence that both our customers and investors have in Monzo”.

Meanwhile, it has been a challenging time for Monzo, as it, along with many other fintech companies, has had to weather the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn. This included utilising the U.K. furlough scheme and subsequently making around 80 employees redundant in the Summer. In addition, there was a round of U.S. layoffs and the shuttering of its Las Vegas-based customer support office.

Like some other banks and fintechs, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in Monzo seeing customer card spend reduce at home and (of course) abroad, meaning it is generating less revenue from interchange fees.

Separately, in May, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield announced internally that he was stepping down as CEO of the U.K. challenger bank to take up the newly created role of president. He was replaced as U.K. CEO by then U.S. CEO Anil, who also joined Monzo’s board in replacement of Bloomfield.

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