‘Data broker’ Oracle misleads billions of consumers, lawsuit alleges, enables privacy end-arounds

Bob Sullivan

At least one Big Tech firm has glided mostly under the radar during the recent techlash — Oracle — but that relative obscurity might be coming to an end. A class-action lawsuit filed against the data giant by some heavy-hitters in the privacy world alleges that Oracle combines some of the worst qualities of Google and Facebook, at a scale even those firms have trouble matching.  Oracle has incredibly intimate information on 5 billion people around the planet — and the lawsuit alleges that the firm trades on that information largely without anyone’s consent.

Oracle combines a variety of data it collects through its own cookies, data it buys from third parties, and data it acquires from real-world retailers, to harmonize billions of data points into single identities that can be targeted with political or commercial messages, the lawsuit says.  This “onboarding” of offline with online data creates uniquely detailed profiles of consumers.

“The regularly conducted business practices of defendant Oracle America amount to a deliberate and purposeful surveillance of the general population,” the lawsuit alleges. “In the course of functioning as a worldwide data broker, Oracle has created a network that tracks in real-time and records indefinitely the personal information of hundreds of millions of people.”

Oracle holds data on 300 million Americans, or about 80% of the population, according to the suit. Those individual consumers can be tracked “seamlessly across devices.” In a video posted by the plaintiffs, Oracle founder Larry Ellison boats that Oracle data can track consumers into stores, micro-target them right to the location where they stand in an aisle, and connect that to store inventory in that very aisle.

“By collecting this data and marrying it to things like micro-location information, Internet users’ search histories, website visits and product comparisons along with their demographic data, and past purchase data, Oracle will be able to predict purchase intent better than anyone,” Ellison boasts in the video.

The firm also builds extensive profiles of individuals, then places them into marketable categories.

“Oracle then infers from this raw data that, for example, a person isn’t sleeping well, or is experiencing headaches or sore throats, or is looking to lose weight, and thousands of other invasive and highly personalized inferences,” the suit says.

One of the plaintiffs is Johnny Ryan, Senior Fellow of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, who I interviewed extensively for our recent “Too Big to Sue” podcast with Duke University.

“Oracle has violated the privacy of billions of people across the globe. This is a Fortune 500 company on a dangerous mission to track where every person in the world goes, and what they do. We are taking this action to stop Oracle’s surveillance machine,” Ryan said in a statement about the lawsuit.

One serious claim the lawsuit makes: Oracle goes to great trouble to avoid consumers’ stated preferences *not* to be tracked — the firm combines various cookies to avoid third-party cookie blocking tools, for example.

“Data brokers participating in Oracle’s Data Marketplace freely portray themselves as able to defeat users’ anti-tracking precautions, a pitch at odds with Oracle’s privacy policies and its professed respect for the right of individuals to opt out,” the suit alleges. It cited a study that found “even when users specifically decline consent to be tracked, various adtech participants—including Oracle—ignore those expressions of consent and place trackers on users’ devices. The same study discovered that Oracle places tracking cookies on a user’s device before the user even has a chance to decline consent.”

The lawsuit also claims that Oracle also uses categories with clever names as an evasive maneuver to sell data the firm claims not to share.

“Oracle segments people based on intimate information, including a person’s views on their weight, hair type, sleep habits, and type of insurance,” it says. “Other categories appear to be proxies for medical information that Oracle purports not to share, like “Emergency Medicine,” “Imaging & Radiology,” “Nuclear Medicine,” “Respiratory Therapy,” “Aging & Geriatrics” “Pain Relief,” and “Allergy & Immunology.” ”

Oracle’s data marketplace also enabled racially-targeted advertising, even after Facebook took steps to stop it, the suit claims: “Oracle facilitates the creation of proxies for protected classes like race, and allows its clients to exclude on that basis. For example, one Oracle customer website describes how, after Facebook made it more difficult to target ads based on race in the employment and credit areas, Oracle helped it achieve the same result.”

Oracle’s data marketplace also permits activity that many would find a threat to democracy, the suit claims: “During the summer of 2020, Mobilewalla tracked mobile devices to collect data on 17,000 Black Lives Matter protesters including their home addresses and demographics. Mobilewalla also released a report entitled ‘George Floyd Protester Demographics: Insights Across 4 Major US Cities,’ which prompted a letter and investigation by Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Congress members.”

Some categories sold by data partners are incredibly intimate:

“OnAudience, a ‘data provider’ that profiles Internet users by ‘observing user activity based on websites visited, content consumed and history paths to find clear behavior patterns and proper level of intent,’ lets customers target individuals categorized as interested in ‘Brain Tumor,’ ‘AIDS & HIV,’ ‘Substance Abuse’ and ‘Incest & Abuse Support.’ ”

The suit alleges violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law and various other counts.  A good analysis of the plaintiff’s legal strategy can be found at this Twitter thread by Robert Bateman.

It’s good that Oracle’s time under the radar might be ending; the firm should be standing next to Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and the other Big Tech names finally getting the scrutiny they deserve.

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