Embracing Privacy-Enhancing Technologies: The Next Step for the Ad Industry?

Achieving parity between safeguarding user privacy and ensuring effective ad targeting is a challenge for digital marketers, yet it remains crucial in order to preserve trust and transparency. Could PETs be the answer to all our ad tech privacy prayers?

Mined, tracked, and sold, all while we readily distribute it without a moment's hesitation – nearly every digital step we take is, indeed, being watched and monetised upon in the form of personal data. 

The basis for a myriad of lawsuits within the last decade or so, data mining and the ethics surrounding it were propelled into the forefront of our minds around 5 years ago when the Cambridge Analytica scandal was first publicised, and Zuck’s long and deafening silence on the matter was shocking but not at all not surprising. 

Data privacy, or the lack thereof, has since permeated headlines, now reaching fever pitch with the news that Google is set to no longer support third-party cookies next year due to concerns surrounding user privacy. 

How can ad tech organisations take the required steps to safeguard consumers while assisting with and attending to the sector’s needs?

Enter, Privacy Enhancing Technologies – what insiders refer to as PETs.

PETs enable businesses to expedite secure data collaboration, enhance customer intelligence, and optimise data value, all while retaining control and upholding consumer privacy. Considering the evolving regulatory and technological landscape of privacy, it becomes evident that the adoption of privacy-enhancing technology may well be a cornerstone of the ad-supported internet's future. 

What exactly are PETs?

The term "privacy-enhancing technology" pertains to tools devised for enhancing the privacy and security of digital environments. The primary objective of privacy-enhancing technology is to find a balance between privacy and utility, emerging as a promising solution to address mounting concerns in the ad tech industry regarding the collection and utilisation of personal data. By diminishing the extent of personal information shared with advertisers and other third parties, PET can be used to safeguard user privacy. Specific examples include: 

Data masking

Data masking techniques involve modifying data values while maintaining the original format, with the objective of generating an obscured version that is resistant to decryption or reverse engineering. Various methods, such as character shuffling, word or character substitution, and encryption, can be used  to alter the data.


Cryptography involves the encryption of sensitive data using algorithms and its subsequent decryption upon reaching the intended destination. By encrypting the data before transmission and decrypting it upon receipt, only the sender and recipient possess the means to access the information. 

Why the sudden interest?

Put best by the ICO’s recently published guidelines on Privacy Enhancing Technologies, “By enabling organisations to share and collaboratively analyse sensitive data in a privacy-preserving manner, PETs open up unprecedented opportunities to harness the power of data through innovative and trustworthy applications.”

Ad measurement possibilities

In the foreseeable future, the integration of PETs into digital advertising will fortify the privacy and security of user data. This integration, which is already underway in some cases, ensures that personal data remains anonymised while enabling targeted ads to be served to relevant audiences. The realms of PETs and ad measurement are likely to converge, safeguarding personal data while facilitating ad measurement.

One approach to incorporate PETs into ad measurement involves the adoption of differential privacy. This technique renders data unidentifiable while still permitting measurement and analysis, all without disclosing personal information. This empowers advertisers to gauge the effectiveness of their campaigns without compromising user privacy.

Federated learning, a form of decentralised machine learning, presents another avenue for ad measurement. It allows for data analysis across diverse devices and platforms without necessitating data aggregation. This capability enables advertisers to gain valuable insights into ad engagement across various devices and platforms, all while maintaining the privacy of individual data.

Blockchain-driven transparency

Rebuilding consumer trust within programmatic advertising is an uphill ask for the ad tech industry, and blockchain technology might just be a part of the solution.

Blockchain’s potentials are huge, enabling secure access for all participants to a shared system of transparent data - buyers and sellers are able to reach consensus on transactional details and their implications. When coupled with real-time proof-of-view technology, designed to eliminate ad fraud while adhering to privacy regulations, the possibilities seem endless.

However, we cannot talk about the potentials without, of course, mentioning some barriers to blockchain’s widespread implementation. The most significant of which would be cost and time. As mentioned by the Martech Series, a blockchain transaction can take up to 1.5 seconds, while digital advertising needs a 10-milliseconds time frame. For an industry where timing is everything, this could pose a serious obstacle.

Similar to any sales-driven sector, price and value play a crucial role, and the expenses associated with implementing blockchain would ultimately be transferred to the customer. This could potentially diminish the perceived value in the eyes of buyers.

Widespread implementation across any sector will take time, and given its worth of USD$886.19bn (~£711.29bn) which is mainly built on the utilisation of user data to create targeted ads, ad tech is no exception to the rule. Only time, and total digital transformation, will tell.

The future is private 

Examples of enhanced user privacy are all around us - most recently Apple’s new Privacy Manifest feature which will hold publishers and app developers accountable for how user data is collected and utilised, while just last year, IAB Tech Lab, the digital advertising technical standard-setting body, announced the creation of the Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) Working Group

For the industry, issues surrounding privacy should not be viewed as an impediment to business, but rather through the lens of possibility, presenting opportunities for data collaboration with stakeholders.

While we are still in the early days of PETs, and we are still defining practical use cases, a simple truth emerges for the ad tech industry: embrace progress or risk being left behind in the dust of technological irrelevance.