back to article They can't collect your bins or fix your roads. They let Google stalk visitors to their websites. Yes, it's UK local government

A report by the team behind privacy-focused browser Brave suggests Britain's local authorities are sharing information about their website users with dozens of private companies. The study [PDF] shows that nearly all councils across the UK exposed data about visitors to their websites, which was then sold on to private …

  1. Buzzword

    Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

    I can just about understand advertising on bus stops, or on the London underground. But why does a public-sector website need ads? (NationalRail.co.uk is one of the worst offenders.) By definition, the ads are getting in the way of delivering the service. Does the local council's telephone line play radio ads when you're on hold? Do the local authority's offices have billboards plastered all over them? Just don't do it, guys.

    1. b0llchit
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

      Because tax is not enough.

      The public sector needs entrepreneurial initiative to get ahead in the competition between counties, cities and public service offices. The size of the bonus for the boss always depends on the best way to be creative in generating revenue. In politics it is called optimizing the public sector and reducing bureaucracy.

      Then, when elections are about, they ensure the status quo.

    2. ArrZarr Silver badge

      Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

      Looking at the most tracked site (Enfield), the ads I got were about how to sign up for school meals etc which means they *may* predominantly be using these ads to get people to the right part of the site as quickly as possible.

      1. Peter X

        Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

        It's still annoying though. Surely they have a menu system, site map and search facilities for this? Advertising is showing you stuff do aren't looking for in order to "up-sell" you something... so it makes no sense even for signing up for school meals.

        1. steelpillow Silver badge

          Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

          "so it makes no sense even for signing up for school meals."

          School meals are usually outsourced. The contractor is paid per meal, so the more the me££ier.

        2. ArrZarr Silver badge

          Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

          It's not entirely stupid - instead of thinking of the ad as an advert, think of it as a dynamic link on the homepage to what is reasonably likely to be the most important part of the site for a specific user. Contrary to what you might think, most display campaigns and display providers are chosen due to the strength of their results for the money spent so a place with good targeting is likely to get chosen over a place with weak targeting. This leads to all the display companies trying to make their targeting as swish as possible.

          Using that in the same way as a paid for site search function isn't a bad idea...

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

            "Using that in the same way as a paid for site search function isn't a bad idea..."

            Except that the user information is being harvested, stored and used by a third party agency with very well known bad habits when it comes to privacy and security.

    3. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

      Do they have ads? I didn’t even know. Why would I?

      Stopped all that delayed page loading and page jumping all over the place so you couldn’t aim a mouse click on a moving target stuff a long time ago with the simplest of tech.

    4. phuzz Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Why do public sector websites have adverts at all?

      Because every single council has had it's funding slashed over the last few years, and this is the 'free market' solution.

      Expecting public sector websites not to fund themselves with advertising, what are you, some kind of communist? Now get ready for your children to have to sit through a mandatory five minute 'brand presentation' before each lesson in school (sorry "Google Learning Zone" we have to call them now), whilst the police get their new "Sponsored by Amazon" uniforms.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Why do they need to track you at all?

      I work in the NHS and our local internet facing site has trackers in it for google analytics so our comms department can give out useless metrics on visitor numbers etc.

      There's no real benefit to us, but I bet there is to Google and co.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An alternative example

    I run a web site that documents a 3D biomechanics file format for public use, and it has no adverts, cookies, or trackers because that's the way we designed it to be for the public good, not to capture visitors and sell their details. This is how public sector web sites should be built - visit it and I will never know who you are. If you want to laugh, read our social media policy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: An alternative example

      "The internet would die without advertising/marketing". No, (as you above), the good parts would survive.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: An alternative example

      Nice one.

  3. Long John Silver
    Pirate

    Worse than I thought

    Having read the report compiled by the 'brave' team I was shocked by the extent to which commercial tracking and targeted advertising has ballooned in recent years. What applies to public sector websites must surely become an order of magnitude worse when commercial sites are considered.

    For many years I have used Mozilla Firefox together with a set of seemingly reliable tracker, ad, and script blockers, on (Linux) PCs and Android devices. Visually they make visiting websites more tolerable. I was aware of an invisible underbelly of intrusive, possibly malignant, activity associated with sites; it suffices merely to use the NoScript add-on to obtain a list of intruders. Other blockers used in tandem reveal many more. Unknown is the number not trapped in that manner. Blockers and advertising malware creators presumably engage in constant battles.

    Problems with social media sites, especially Facebook and Twatter, are well documented. However, not wishing to associate with morons I have no such accounts. Google, particularly on mobile devices, is problematic. It resides at the core of bundled Android systems. To rid oneself entirely of its baleful influence one must root a device and install either the open source Android or something else; rooting is risky because device manufacturers make it difficult to do; also some useful software, e.g. Barclay's Bank account connector, refuses to run on rooted devices for very good security reasons.

    Google has released some Android applications it is hard to do without these days (e.g. maps and navigation). The only apparent solution to quandary is to use not-rooted Android on phones and restrict its scope for intrusion so far as the system permits. Given that virtual keypads, and even physical keys, are too small to make typing anything other than brief text messages using Signal frustrating, it follows that for the most part phones are suitable only for passive browsing.

    Fortunately, VPN (hosted beyond '5 eyes' easy reach) is quite cheap and there is a reliable Tor application for Android. Even with this and all other mentioned precautions in place there appears to be little room for complacency.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Worse than I thought

      >What applies to public sector websites must surely

      I'm entirely happy that the public body I work for doesn't have any adverts on their website.

    2. Venerable and Fragrant Wind of Change

      Re: Worse than I thought

      What applies to public sector websites must surely become an order of magnitude worse when commercial sites are considered.

      Why?

      I haven't seen much strong evidence one way or t'other, but the balance of what I have seen suggests that the public sector is customarily worse. And less responsive or apologetic if confronted about dodgy practice.

    3. Just Enough Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Worse than I thought

      Use a script blocker. Globally block, as a matter of course, the google and facebook scripts running on all websites. Otherwise you may as well be browsing with them peering over your shoulder, taking notes.

      Ten years ago, people would have reckoned your tinfoil hat was on if you did this. But their presence and surveillance all over the internet is insidious.

    4. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Worse than I thought

      "Google has released some Android applications it is hard to do without these days (e.g. maps and navigation)"

      You can get a second hand SatNav very cheap these days. They also don't use up the battery on your phone so you are power down when you need to make or receive a call.

      I leave my GPS, Data and Wi-fi off on the mobile unless I'm actively using them. I have a permissions utility running and it's very surprising how much Firefox wants to turn on the camera. I have no idea why.

  4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "Critics responded that the IAB are not road builders, but the traffic authority."

    More like a road builders' trade association.

  5. Alan Brown Silver badge

    ICO.....

    "The ICO's response was hardly inspiring. "

    It's following government policy, based on who's paying the politicians. Shut up and eat your spam.

  6. Olivier2553 Silver badge

    In the same vein

    I recently discovered that the newsletter send by the French embassy in Thailand is using a tacking service when linking to the main web article. I informed the French regulator, still waiting for an outcome.

  7. steelpillow Silver badge
    Unhappy

    but we are a /Responsible/ Authority

    As a local councillor myself (on my lowly Parish Council) I noticed all this shit building when central government realised it could cut paper costs by forcing everybody online and started handing out incentives for us locals to do likewise. Ignorant and harassed council droids lapped up the "just click here and let us do it all for you" offers. A few even went on courses to be taught the sales mantras. Most never even realised they were paying the "low cost" merchants with our data. When I contacted the larger councils above my head, the droids proved incapable of listening - the one person left who had gone on the "training" course was the sole authority they were allowed to listen to.

    Then came the banking crisis and swingeing budget cuts. Suddenly it was OK to sell "responsible" advertising on a Council web site. The "even a Council droid can do this" site-builder providers rubbed their hands with glee and brought in a few more data-sucking javascript peddlers.

    A few of the more intelligent council droids are nowadays aware that this sort of thing goes on, but if they do not put on blinkers and adopt a "but we are a /Responsible/ Authority so we couldn't possibly be in that loop" mantra then they get removed from anywhere remotely influential in case they bring down added costs on the treasurer's head. So Darwin ensures that the idiot mantras are embedded in the council's corporate consciousness.

    IMHO the only viable solution is to create an open-source platform and pass a law that they all have to use it - without any 3rd party scripting. But advocates for sanity in the Cabinet Office have always been too few and transitory for that to happen - I know, I tried.

    1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: but we are a /Responsible/ Authority

      forcing everybody online

      This *really* annoys me - if only for the reason that my wife (and otherwise fairly technical person) absolutely hates doing anything vaguely official online so I have to do it on her behalf..

      And if she hates it (despite her techical background) imagine how much worse it is for someone older with no technical backgound or built-in technical support?

      1. Spanners Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: but we are a /Responsible/ Authority

        And if she hates it (despite her technical background)

        It is possible she hates it because of her technical background.

    2. Venerable and Fragrant Wind of Change

      Re: but we are a /Responsible/ Authority

      Upvote for the insight.

      But who do you suppose is going to build your open-source platform? An open-source community happens when you have people with both the motivation (people with a genuine interest in local government websites) and the capability (Reg readers :^). How many of you are there, and who is driving the effort? Your best hope is that a commercial provider opens their platform, but even then your problem is adopting it. In your own words, "When I contacted the larger councils above my head, the droids proved incapable of listening ..."

      And of course noone will pass such a law. The nearest they'd come is a law banning dodgy practice with data, and I think that's the one called GDPR.

      1. steelpillow Silver badge

        Re: but we are a /Responsible/ Authority

        "How many of you are there, and who is driving the effort?" - Yes that is exactly the problem. The Cabinet Office made a noble effort under David Cameron (should I rephrase that?) but regime change soon put a stop to that sort of subversive timewasting. I do believe that if it were properly presented to local authorities, the talent would come forward. We shall just have to wait and hope that what goes around comes around.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm Webmaster for a district council and thankfully my website doesn't have adverts - it was only three weeks ago I last had to send an email listing arguments of why having adverts on our website was a bad idea as we are having to monetize anything we can due to austerity, and I'd used a scenario like this as one of the arguments for not doing so.

    Fingers crossed I'm going to be able to bin Google Analytics too so there will be no cookies at all :)

  9. Mike 137 Bronze badge

    "The ICO's response was hardly inspiring"

    The ICO's response is hardly ever inspiring. They're under funded, under staffed, have a penchant for concentrating on big data breaches and big players and their guidance is generally extremely superficial.

    They rarely if ever seem to be interested in breaches of data subject rights that don't involve data leakage. This could be because they stick to the letter rather than the spirit of the law and lots of businesses employ lawyers so they can steer as close as possible to the limit safely, or just part of the prevalent culture that thinks information security is entirely the same as IT security and that protecting "CIA" is the sum total of the task. However I suspect it may also be about kudos and public image to some extent. A regulator needs a high profile, and you don't get that by dealing with small things, however effectively.

  10. EnviableOne Silver badge

    Ok Google

    They might not collect data from "sensitive interest" sites, but they don't tell their Product Victims Customers what informormation they are collecting, how they intend to use it, and where they can get a copy of tsiad data should they wish to.

    Therefore in breach of Article 5 processing personal data without informed consent

  11. MachDiamond Silver badge

    It's not just websites

    There seems to be a big push with government agencies to use Facebook for announcements and news. They can't be bothered to update the official website. Never mind the fine print that FB lays claim to use and sell anything posted to or though their service.

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