Verizon Supercookie to Let Advertisers Gorge on Customer Data

Verizon has announced it will begin sharing customer data with its AOL Advertising Network, triggering concerns about privacy and customer tracking.

AOL will use Verizon’ssupercookie — which is difficult to get rid of — to track users. [*Correction – Oct. 14, 2015]

Devices on a user’s Verizon Wireless account, those used to log in to that account, and devices used to connect directly to AOL sites and services or to third-party sites where AOL provides ads will be tracked and may receive ads.

“This is a huge privacy problem, but carriers have never really cared that much about customer satisfaction,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at theEnderle Group.

Verizon won’t use information about the location of users’ mobile devices, it said — but AOL might.

“If AOL uses it, given it’s part of Verizon, Verizon is using it,” Enderle told the E-Commerce Times. “That’s a lie.”

What Verizon Will Do

Verizon will combine its current ad programs, the Relevant Mobile Advertising program and Verizon Selects, with the AOL Ad Network beginning in November.

The Relevant Mobile Ad program gathers users’ postal and email addresses; information about their Verizon Wireless products and services, such as device type; and information obtained from other companies, such as gender, age range and interests.

Verizon Selects gathers the same information as well as the addresses of websites customers visit using the wireless service, the location of the device, and information about what Verizon products and services they use. It also gathers information from other companies.

The AOL Ad Network collects information when people use AOL services and visit third-party websites where AOL provides ad services, as well as from third-party partners and advertisers.

Personally identifiable information is shared with vendors and partners that do work for Verizon.

Boiled down, it means that just about all of a customer’s information is gathered and shared with anyone who partners or works with Verizon or AOL.

“We are going to be talking to Verizon about this,” Brian Wesolowski, chief of staff at theCenter for Democracy and Technology, told the E-Commerce Times.

Verizon Defends Itself

The uproar led Verizon’s chief privacy officer, Karen Zacharia, to explain the company’s move.

The Unique Identifier Header, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation has described as a “perma-cookie,” does not contain or transmit any personally identifiable information, she pointed out.

The UIDH doesn’t broadcast Web-browsing information to advertisers or others, and it will be transmitted only to entities on a whitelist, Zacharia said.

Customers can choose whether to participate in the Verizon ad programs and, by extension, the AOL Ad Network.

However, they will be included automatically unless they take action to opt out.

They can opt out of Relevant Mobile Advertising online or by calling 866-211-0874.

That won’t be enough for customers who have joined the opt-in Verizon Selects program, however. Verizon will continue to insert the UIDH into traffic coming from their devices unless they opt out of it as well.

Prepaid phone users won’t get the ads, but Verizon is not concerned that contract customers will switch over as a result, said company spokesperson David Samburg.

“People who do not want to participate can opt out,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Part of a Master Plan

Verizon is seeking to monetize its data further in a bid for a share of the global advertising market, which eMarketer estimated at nearly $600 billion for this year.

That will be driven by mobile ads, which will top $100 billion in 2016, the firm predicted.

Verizon’s move will give advertisers “incredible insight on where people go, what they eat and write about, what websites they visit on their phones,” Enderle said. Consumers, meanwhile, “may get better deals from retailers that are more timely.”

Verizon is one of about 10 telcos using supercookies to track customers.

Could it do more to keep customers apprised of its plans and their impact?

“At this point, they aren’t trying to find a better way, just do the minimum that complies with the law,” Enderle said. “They don’t want to lose customers, they just want to monetize them.”

*ECT News Network editor’s note – Oct. 14, 2015: Our original published version of this column erroneously stated that Verizon’s UIDH was “impossible to get rid of.” Although users cannot remove it through their privacy settings, they can have it removed by opting out of or discontinuing opt-in participation in the Verizon programs that use it.

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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