Verizon Tracking Supercookies Can Now Be Better Evaded by Customers

Verizon's supercookie mobile ad tracking program was bashed by critics earlier this year, but now Verizon has expanded the procedures that customers can use to stop being tracked.

Verizon, supercookies, privacy

Verizon has expanded the ability of customers to opt out of its "supercookie" mobile ad tracking program by adding a process that will block identifier codes that previously were automatically added to their mobile Internet activities using their smartphones.

The company announced it was working on such a process in January and has now confirmed that the identifier code blocking is now in place for customers who request it.

The controversy arose about two years ago when critics complained that Verizon inserted special identifier codes, called Unique Identifying Headers (UIDH), into the mobile data transmissions of customers as part of the company's Relevant Mobile Advertising program. The intent of the ad program, according to Verizon, was not to intrude on privacy but to customize ads to users based on what they searched for online using their mobile devices. The codes and the information collected from customers did not identify customers, according to Verizon.

Critics, however, insisted that the UIDH codes could allow Web servers to build profiles of users through their mobile devices. Verizon has been using the UIDH data, which is dynamic and changes often on users' devices, since late 2012.

Verizon customers already had the ability to opt out of the Mobile Relevant Advertising program, but until now they were still be subject to the use of the UIDH codes even if they opted out of the ad program. It took the company several months to develop a way to halt the UIDH code collections.

Debra Lewis, a Verizon spokeswoman, told eWEEK in an email reply on April 1 that the new UIDH blocking is now available to customers by request after developers were finally able to expand the company's blocking capabilities.

"Our systems have been changed so that we automatically stop inserting the UIDH for customers who opt out of our Relevant Mobile Advertising program or activate a line that is ineligible for our advertising programs," such as government or enterprise lines, which are not subject to the company's ad programs, wrote Lewis. "Verizon takes customer privacy seriously and it is a central consideration as we develop new products and services."

In addition, she wrote, Verizon never shares information with third parties that could identify its customers as part of their advertising programs.

In February, the supercookie controversy even attracted the attention of four U.S. senators, who asked the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to look into the practice to determine if it intrudes on the privacy of consumers, according to an earlier eWEEK report. In separate Feb. 6 letters sent to Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, and to Edith Ramirez, the chairwoman of the FTC, the senators asked the agencies to investigate Verizon's supercookie use.

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

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.