Verizon Agrees to Let Customers Opt Out of 'Supercookie' Tracking

The controversial cookie tracking program was used to help target specific ads to customers using "supercookies." The program will now allow users to opt-out of the tracking.

Verizon, data privacy, data tracking

After hearing criticism for months about its use of special data headers to target ads to mobile customers, Verizon Wireless has now agreed to allow users who object to the data tags to opt out of the program so they will no longer receive them.

The opt-out option was revealed in a recent interview with a Verizon director who had helped develop the tagging technology, according to a Jan. 30 report by The New York Times.

Privacy advocates have been criticizing the program because it previously did not allow customers to avoid participating in the ad tracking efforts using the special data headers.

That will now change, the story reported. "Users who do not want to be tracked with an identifier that Verizon uses for ad-targeting purposes will soon be able to completely opt out, the company said on Friday," the report stated.

The Verizon director who mentioned the upcoming opt-out capability, Praveen Atreya, "said the company was considering allowing its subscribers to opt out of being tagged with its undeletable customer codes," which was then confirmed by Verizon on Jan. 30, the Times reported.

In an email reply in response to an eWEEK inquiry, Debra Lewis, a Verizon spokeswoman, wrote that the company "takes customer privacy seriously and it is a central consideration as we develop new products and services. As the mobile advertising ecosystem evolves, and our advertising business grows, delivering solutions with best-in-class privacy protections remains our focus."

Verizon is working to "listen to our customers and provide them the ability to opt out of our advertising programs," wrote Lewis. "We have begun working to expand the opt-out to include the identifier referred to as the UIDH, and expect that to be available soon. As a reminder, Verizon never shares customer information with third parties as part of our advertising programs."

Back in October 2014, Verizon denied that the ad program intruded on the privacy of its customers, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

The controversy involves Verizon's inclusion of Unique Identifying Headers (UIDH) in the address information of incoming Internet data requests from Verizon customers more than two years ago. Critics of the practice say that UIDHs can ultimately allow Web servers to build profiles of users when their mobile devices generate the tokens, but Verizon denies that the information can be used to identify an individual user.

Verizon previously said that the UIDH data, which has been in use since late 2012, accompanies users' Internet data requests transmitted over the company's wireless network. The UIDH data is dynamic and changes often on user devices, and can be used to authenticate subscribers as well as help to associate devices with targeted ad campaigns for the company's Relevant Mobile Advertising program, as long as a customer has not opted out of that program.

Customers were already eligible to opt out of Verizon's Relevant Mobile Advertising program, but until now could not also opt out of the header use.

In November 2014, AT&T dropped its own similar experiment with phone-tracking tags that gave users unique identifiers, even if the users had opted out of mobile ad-tracking services, according to a previous eWEEK report. That controversial tracking program had also been criticized by privacy advocates who argued that tracking user information even if users opted out of the tracking was not fair. The AT&T testing was built around a numeric code that changed every 24 hours on mobile devices and was used to help serve ads on an anonymous basis, similar to a cookie in online advertising. The testing was completed by AT&T at the time and was removed from the company's mobile network, according to the report.

The tracking tags, which were also known as "perma-cookies," had allowed Internet sites to track a specific mobile phone and create a database of information about what the user of the phone was doing, such as looking for sports scores or searching for restaurants or shops.