Our good friends at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have advised the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of their apprehensions about Verizon’s use of “super cookies” to track the internet usage of 100+ million of its cellular customers. In addition, the EFF plans to take legal action against Verizon to stop the tracking program.
Verizon has been tracking 106 million of its “retail” customers (meaning everyone except government contracts and some unspecified business contracts) since November 2012 with “super cookies,” those little bits of code that track a cellphone user’s browsing history to profile his/her interests, budget, and other personal data. That data is then used to build a profile of the user, which is sold to advertisers. Super cookies are so pervasive and powerful that it’s difficult to even notice them, let alone to remove or otherwise escape them.
When Verizon and AT&T submitted their tracking plans to a Senate subcommittee in 2008, the companies stated that they would not track customers without pursuing explicit permission beforehand. Apparently, either in the retail contract’s Terms of Service – that long document in miniscule type that practically nobody reads – or in some other notice, Verizon informed customers of the tracking program and offered a way to opt out. (AT&T’s tracking program is reportedly still being tested).
Verizon maintains that the unique code of its super cookie is changed “regularly” to allow use by only advertisers who are part of the company’s “Precision Market Insights” advertising program. Simultaneously, those relatively few aware and clever Verizon users who have managed to opt out of the tracking program are still given a unique code attached to their web traffic, but their information is not used to create profiles sold to advertisers.
Super cookies are not new. MSN and Hulu supposedly use them to reconstruct user profiles even after traditional cookies have been deleted. However, Verizon’s use for its retail cellphone users is particularly worrisome because it allows the company to monitor every site visited by a user, categorize a profile of his/her interests and tastes, and sell the profile to advertisers so they can sharpen and target their sales pitches based on a user’s online behavior.
The EFF and other critics assert that Verizon’s tracking program is alarming in several ways. Other than generating those annoying ads telling me precisely what I will NOT buy, the data can also comprise profiles used by others: the NSA, for example, or other data brokers or web sites. There is a serious question as to whether Verizon’s program violates wiretapping laws and other telecommunications laws, particularly because Verizon’s notice and its “opt-out” provision seem inadequate.
What are the solutions for someone wishing to avoid super cookie tracking of his/her cellphone web traffic? Some say there is no solution because online privacy is a myth: every carrier is using or will use super cookies because they are in the business of advertising dollars and all your information is for sale to the highest bidder. Others advise the use of “dumb” phones or burner phones, such as tracfones that will not allow tracking (or much of anything else). Still others support a call to Verizon insisting on an opt-out, which might get you opted right out of your service contract. Still others say the option should be “opt-in,” requiring that a customer consciously decide to become part of the tracking program. Finally, a user can complain to the FCC here: http://www.fcc.gov/complaints , the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) here: http://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection and keep an eye on the EFF’s upcoming action(s) against Verizon here: https://www.eff.org/
DO’S AND DON’TS
DON’T give up on online privacy.
DO use “dumb” phones or burner phones, such as tracfones.
DO call Verizon to insist on opting out of the tracking program.
DO support opting in, requiring that a customer consciously decide to become part of the tracking program.
DO complain to the FCC here: http://www.fcc.gov/complaints
DO complain to the FTC here: http://www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection
DO monitor the EFF’s upcoming action(s) against Verizon here: https://www.eff.org/
Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.