Big Brother is watching: council lets private firms track you

Croydon Council is allowing at least a dozen private firms to track your every click and page view each time you visit their official website.

That’s the stunning discovery of an investigation by The Grauniad newspaper,, published today.

According to The Grauniad, “More than 400 local authorities allowed at least one third-party company to track individuals who visit their sites… Some councils were found to be letting companies track use of sensitive sections of their sites, such as when people were seeking financial help or support for substance abuse.”

According to the newspaper report, councils including Croydon are sharing information about users of their websites, including when they seek help with a benefit claims or with a disability or alcoholism.

Some councils are sharing that kind of detailed, personal information with as many as 25 private companies. The Grauniad lists Croydon as having such an arrangement with 12 such firms.

The newspaper reports: “Data obtained from cookies tracking where users go online can be sold by data brokers for profit.”

This would be a highly dubious, unethical and now illegal practice if conducted by a private organisation, but for a public body to allow outside firms to monitor their users’ activities is liable to cause widespread outrage.

The Guardian quotes one specialist, Wolfie Christl, a technologist and researcher as saying, “Public sector websites and apps should not use invasive third-party tracking at all.”

A web browser, Brave, analysed council websites to provide the data for the Guardian’s shocking scoop. Their chief policy officer, Johnny Ryan, told the newspaper, “Private companies embedded on council websites learn about you. This happens even on the most sensitive occasions when you might be seeking help from your council.”

Brave discovered that councils were allowing third parties to harvest information when residents and other users of their websites visited. Some collected information about consumers and sold it to other organisations. One council gave access to 21 firms to log who visited a page for people who need financial support for accommodation and food. And another council shared data with at least 20 companies, including seven data brokers, about who was visiting their official website for help on substance abuse.

London borough Ealing gave information to at least 21 firms about who had visited the local authority’s special educational needs and disability page.

Neil Williams: Croydon’s digital chief

As The Guardian explains: “Companies track online activity through cookies, pixels and other trackers. When embedded in a browser, these bits of code can let users be traced around the web. While they don’t identify personal details such as name or address, they identify a user’s viewing habits – such as which page was loaded at a specific time.”

It is now prohibited for companies to share data on protected categories – health, sexual orientation, race and political opinions – without explicit consent. But Ryan said, “We used an automatic system to load each council’s webpage. All it does is load the site. It is not able to click buttons. All of the tracking revealed in our research happened without consent.”

Former government official Neil Williams is Croydon Council’s recently appointed chief digital officer. Inside Croydon asked him, using cutting edge digital media, why the council allows private firms to access residents’ data, and how much the council was making from this data scam.

He had not responded by the time of publication.


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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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