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Verizon’s Mobile ‘Supercookies’ Seen as Threat to Privacy


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Disclosure: I now use Verizon prepaid.


From "The New York Times"




"For the last several months, cybersecurity experts have been warning Verizon Wireless that it was putting the privacy of its customers at risk. The computer codes the company uses to tag and follow its mobile subscribers around the web, they said, could make those consumers vulnerable to covert tracking and profiling.


It looks as if there was reason to worry.


This month Jonathan Mayer, a lawyer and computer science graduate student at Stanford University, reported on his blog that Turn, an advertising software company, was using Verizon’s unique customer codes to regenerate its own tracking tags after consumers had chosen to delete what is called a cookie — a little bit of code that can stick with your web browser after you have visited a site. In effect, Turn found a way to keep tracking visitors even after they tried to delete their digital footprints.


The episode shined a spotlight on a privacy issue that is particularly pronounced at Verizon. The company’s customer codes, called unique ID headers, have troubled some data security and privacy experts who say Verizon has introduced a persistent, hidden tracking mechanism into apps and browsers that third parties could easily exploit.


While Internet users can choose to delete their regular cookies, Verizon Wireless users cannot delete the company’s so-called supercookies.


“Verizon is not in a position to control how others use its header,” Mr. Mayer said. “There’s no doubt that this particular approach does introduce new privacy problems.”


Websites, digital advertising networks and online analytics services have for years placed bits of code in people’s browsers to follow their online activities and show them advertising tailored to their interests. Verizon uses its customer tags to put subscribers into advertising categories, among other things.


In a recent interview, Praveen Atreya, a Verizon technology director who helped develop the technology behind the mobile marketing program, said the company’s unique header was not intended for use by other companies to remember its subscribers or recover information about them.


Indeed, after a report on the practice by ProPublica, Turn announced it would suspend its use of Verizon’s ID codes to regenerate tracking cookies and reconsider its use of the technique.


“We feel this practice is legal,” Max Ochoa, Turn’s chief privacy officer, said in a phone interview. “But given people’s concerns, as soon as we get the new codes rolled out, we will suspend this practice.”


Telecommunications companies had long avoided selling information about their customers’ activities because a federal law classified them as “common carriers,” akin to public utilities; the category is subject to strict data-privacy rules.

But in 2007, the Federal Communications Commission decided that the privacy regulations governing telephone communications need not apply to the wireless Internet service provided by phone carriers.


Online behemoths like Facebook and Yahoo, along with consumer database marketers like Acxiom and BlueKai, already enabled advertisers to target narrow customer segments, like 30-something men who earn more than $200,000 and are in the market for luxury cars. But the F.C.C.’s ruling paved the way for wireless providers to do likewise."


Yes that is just an Excerpt, much more in the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/26/technology/verizons-mobile-supercookies-seen-as-threat-to-privacy.html?emc=edit_tu_20150126&nl=technology&nlid=36852580&_r=0


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