According to a recent report by ProPublicaGoogle would have allowed RuTarget, a Russian advertising company yet under the yoke of international sanctions, to collect data on its users for several months. In times of war, US entities are not expected to do business with Russian companies.
Despite the war, Google continued to collaborate with RuTarget
In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Mark Warner, chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Google warning it to beware of “the exploitation of your platform by Russia and Russian-related entities”. At the time, Warner had asked Google to verify the compliance of its advertising activities under economic sanctions. A few days after the start of the war, the American web giants had nevertheless assured that they would cut their ties with Russia.
June 23, ProPublica discovered that Google was still sharing its users’ (potentially sensitive in times of war) data with a Russian advertising company owned by Russia’s largest state bank. Indeed, Google allowed RuTarget, a Russian company that helps brands and agencies buy digital ads, access and store data about people browsing websites and apps in Ukraine.
However, this company had been added to the list of entities sanctioned by the US Treasury, and that as of February 24. Data sharing between Google and RuTarget ceased four months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on June 23. The day when ProPublica has contacted Google about this suspicious activity. RuTarget belongs to Sberbanka Russian state bank that the Treasury described as being “of unique importance to the country’s economy”.
The Russians were able to use the data to track Ukrainians
The collaboration between Google and RuTarget means that essential information such as unique mobile phone identifiers, IP addresses, location information and details about users’ interests and online activity, may have been used by the Russian army and intelligence services. In fact, the Russians were able to use it to track people or locate places of interest. In times of war, all data is valuable.
According to Google spokesperson Michael Aciman, the company blocked RuTarget from using its advertising products in March. He claims that the company has not purchased ads directly from Google since that date. He nevertheless has admitted that the Russian company was still receiving data about its users. Now RuTarget can no longer access user data or even purchase ads through third parties in Russia who may not be sanctioned.
For Mark Warner, Google’s inability to sever its relationship with RuTarget is alarming. He estimates that “All companies have a responsibility to ensure that they do not inadvertently help fund or even support Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Learning that an American company might be sharing user data with a Russian company – owned by a sanctioned state bank, no less – is alarming and disappointing”.