Online gambling industry ad tracking comes under scrutiny

Dave, a Scotsman in his early twenties, received a marketing email for an internet casino in 2009 offering him an extra £200 to bet if he played £200 on online slots.

Over the next decade, Dave would lose £100,000 to his gambling addiction. Despite multiple attempts to close his accounts and retire from marketing, he continued to receive offers, which he accused of having triggered addictive behavior and suicidal thoughts.

Dave had been targeted by a constellation of companies, including gambling operators and third-party data brokers, who had quietly tracked, profiled and targeted him as a high-value asset.

This week, the UK data watchdog said its investigative team was looking into a complaint for the first time outlining the scale and scope of advertising tracking and targeting in the online gambling industry. The move comes as government plans to reform gambling laws were put on hold for the fourth time last month.

“The game has the ultimate hook,” said Dave, who declined to use his real name. “You always think you can solve your gambling problems by playing a little more.”

The gaming industry spends £1.5billion a year on advertising in the UK, and 60% of its profits come from 5% of users, who are mostly vulnerable or problem gamers, according to a parliamentary report . To target customers, companies gather vast amounts of data from the moment they log on, from game speed to how much money they spend during a session.

Complaint filed by campaign group Clean Up Gambling with the UK Information Commissioner’s Office analyzes tracking technology used by Sky Bet, an online gambling site owned by largest gambling company Flutter in the world, which also owns Paddy Power.

The lobby group has urgently called for an audit of the entire online gambling industry, which it says uses similar techniques, as well as adtech companies and data brokers whose services it uses .

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Flutter said, “The protection of our customers and their personal data is of paramount importance to Sky Betting & Gaming and the other Flutter Entertainment Group brands. We also expect the same level of attention and vigilance from our partners and suppliers.

“All Flutter Entertainment companies handle customer data in a controlled manner to ensure that we deliver our products safely and reliably, to do everything we can to proactively protect our customers from harm, and to ensure that our company meets its obligations. legal and regulatory. obligation. »

Much of the monitoring by gambling companies is ostensibly to monitor dangerous games, amid concerns that gambling addiction has become increasingly widespread, particularly during the long stays of the coronavirus lockdown. .

Groups ranging from Entain, owner of Ladbrokes Coral, to Flutter have started using more advanced artificial intelligence systems to inspect player behavior.

Lee Fenton, Managing Director of Bally’s, owner of Virgin Games, said: “We use data across our business. Data is our most important and powerful tool.

The complaint investigated by the ICO is based on a February report, authored by Austrian researcher Wolfie Christl and commissioned by Clean Up Gambling, which alleged that Sky Bet and its partners were creating detailed behavioral profiles of subjects and sharing thousands of points of data with dozens of third parties, to persuade players they wanted to win back.

Flutter said it did not have access to punters’ broader financial data when it created profiles, and that Sky Bet uses third parties to help target sponsored social media ads away from vulnerable customers, rather than to them.

An advertising partner, Signal, owned by credit reporting giant TransUnion, had a record of 186 attributes for an individual, including propensity to gamble, favorite games and sensitivity to specific types of marketing.

TransUnion said it helps gaming companies “prevent fraud, confirm age and identity, verify affordability, and protect vulnerable customers, to support responsible gaming.” The company added that it was unable to discuss individual customers and was complying with the law.

Signal’s profile included metrics such as the individual’s financial value to gambling companies and whether they returned after they stopped playing. Signal ceased operations in the UK following legal action brought after the publication of Christl’s report.

“This is the pointy end to data abuse. We’re talking about addiction, people losing huge amounts of money, and profiling being exploited to exacerbate that,” said Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling, who is himself a former drug addict.

“It’s not like selling gardening tools on the Internet. We’re talking about something very, very addictive.

The complaint filed with the ICO alleges widespread illegality in the operation of Skybet, including failure to obtain consent to collect sensitive addiction-related medical data. “None of our clients knew they were being profiled, let alone that there were third parties involved,” said Ravi Naik, legal director at AWO, which represents Clean Up Gambling.

Flutter said it was a technology-driven company that used customer data in a number of sophisticated ways, but all data was handled lawfully and transparently.

In March, the gambling regulator fined Flutter £1.17million for sending promotional emails to customers of its Sky Betting and Gaming brand who had self-barred from games money or opted out of receiving marketing communications.

Among those who had received such emails was Dave. “I relapsed several times after being sent to direct marketing,” he said.

“They have a business model of basically getting customers, ruining them, and moving on. All they care about is profit.

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