Universal Identifiers in Advertising: Promised Privacy or a Risky Joke?

The Universal Identifier Uproar

Universal Identifiers, often dubbed as the "privacy-friendly" alternative to third-party cookies, aim to track users seamlessly across the web without compromising personal data. It sounds like a dream come true in a world obsessed with data privacy, but let's peel back the layers and face the disturbing truths lurking beneath the surface.

The Centralization of Power

The very essence of Universal Identifiers often lies in the hands of advertising giants and tech behemoths. This centralization of power raises a pivotal question: Can we trust a few industry titans to safeguard our data and truly prioritize user privacy? Or are we merely handing them the keys to the kingdom while hoping for the best?

Identifiers available in the bid stream

Identifiers are meant for technologies to identify a user. It’s the main purpose and in order to do that, ad technologies send user objects with a multitude of identifiers to increase chances of users to be identified. Take openRTB is an example, SSPs will send (along with a consent string), a multitude of identifiers. In the example below, you will have identifiers ID5, Liveramp, ids from the publisher as well as publisher common id. All of those point to the same person and any DSP will be able to know which URLs a person has been visiting. Consent or not, it doesn’t sound more privacy than cookies. It’s at least as bad and potentially worse because as a user you can’t just delete your cookies and some of those ids might be derived from an email address making it cross-device and multi-browser.

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Opt-Out Illusions

Universal Identifiers claim to offer opt-out mechanisms for those concerned about privacy. However, the ease and effectiveness of these mechanisms are questionable at best. Can we genuinely claim to protect privacy when the opt-out process is akin to traversing a maze without a map and a single go-to page to manage it all?

The Specter of User Profiling

While Universal Identifiers might not track individuals, they do allow for the creation of highly detailed user profiles. These profiles can be exploited for eerily precise targeting. Does it sound like privacy when your online behavior is dissected into a neatly organized dossier, ready to be used for advertising purposes? This is what sharing so many identifier in parallel enable, user graphs become suddenly way more complete.

Data Security Nightmare

With the concentrated treasure trove of data at the heart of Universal Identifiers, the stakes are high for data security. Any breach or mishandling of this centralized repository could lead to catastrophic privacy consequences. All those identifiers combined with so much other data points and shared between so many technologies make it nearly impossible to prevent leakages. Are we willing to play Russian roulette with our data for the sake of so-called privacy?

Transparency and the Illusion of Consent

Transparency and informed consent are the cornerstones of data privacy. Are users truly informed about how their data is being harnessed for advertising purposes? Can a consent be truly informed when you have to read hundreds of privacy policies to understand what happens with your data? Or is the fine print so fine that we are agreeing to terms we scarcely comprehend? Reimagining the Privacy-Personalization Paradigm:

The Universal Identifier debate forces us to reevaluate the precarious balance between personalized advertising and individual privacy. While they promise privacy enhancements, they also bring with them a trove of risks that demand our attention.


So, what's the scary truth about Universal Identifiers? It's not just about whether they enhance privacy or serve as a joke; it's about asking the right questions, demanding transparency, and holding the industry accountable for safeguarding our digital footprints. Some ad tech players invest in true privacy preserving solutions and the rest sees the opportunity of going the extra-mile and make individualised targeting even more individual.

As we navigate this uncharted territory, let's not be easily swayed by buzzwords and promises. Let's scrutinize, challenge, and actively participate in shaping the future of digital advertising, where privacy is not a joke but a fundamental right we refuse to compromise. It's time to demand the truth and ensure that Universal Identifiers truly serve the interests of users and privacy rather than the whims of the advertising giants.

Published on:
September 18, 2023
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