Surveillance advertising has allowed Big Tech to profit off of consumers’ personal data, and witnesses at a March 1 hearing told lawmakers it’s time to put an end to this invasive practice.

At the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing, witnesses expressed their concerns over the practice and urged Congress to pass the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act of 2022, introduced by Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

Katie McInnis, the senior public policy manager at DuckDuckGo, said her company’s search engine helps consumers avoid surveillance ads and data collection by using contextual advertisements.

“Contextual advertisements are based on the content being shown on the screen and do not need to know anything about you,” McInnis said. “Behavioral advertising, by contrast, is based on personal profiles from data collected both on and offline about you.”

“Have you ever searched for something online and then saw an ad for the exact same thing pop up on another website or an app? Or maybe you thought that your phone is listening to you based on the creepy ads that you’re seeing online? That’s surveillance advertising,” she added.

McInnis said consumers need bills such as the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act to protect them “from the harm surveillance advertising and data collection cause like discrimination, identity theft, scams, and fraud.”

Mutale Nkonde, the chief executive officer at AI for the People, also warned of the societal harms of surveillance advertising, saying that advertisers can use social media recommendation algorithms to easily reach their target audience.

“This is resulting in social platforms being used to spread divisive and racist content by bad actors who use targeted advertising to recruit people who engage in this type of content,” Nkonde said in her written testimony.

Laurel Lehman, a policy analyst at Consumer Reports, also voiced support for the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, saying stopping targeted ads “would accomplish a lot of good for consumers beleaguered by constant tracking.”

Worries surrounding surveillance advertising and its targeted advertisements were also highlighted by President Biden in his March 1 State of the Union address, especially in regards to the damaging effects to children.

“We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” President Biden said. “It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.