Verizon to let you opt out of 'supercookies'

After complaints from privacy advocates, Verizon will allow users to turn off so-called supercookies that can track online behavior.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

Verizon says it's working on a way for customers to opt out of supercookies. The carrier says it will be "available soon."

Following an outcry from privacy advocates, Verizon says it will give users the ability to shut down supercookies that track their online activities.

Supercookies aroused concerns last year when it was discovered that Verizon and AT&T were using them to keep tabs on your Web browsing. Verizon uses the data from these supercookies to analyze your interests and online activities. Such data can then be used by advertisers to launch more targeted ads.

But supercookies have been blasted by privacy advocates for several reasons. They follow the websites you visit and the links you click for the purpose of collecting data for advertisers. They could potentially be used by hackers to track your activities, according to privacy experts. And unlike regular cookies, they're difficult to remove. You can delete regular cookies from your browser. But to get rid of a supercookie via Verizon, you must unsubscribe from Precision Market Insights via Verizon's Wireless Web portal, its mobile app or over the phone.

Given the outcry, Verizon said that it is working on a way for people to opt out of supercookies, officially known as the Unique Identifier Header (UIDH).

"Verizon takes customer privacy seriously and it is a central consideration as we develop new products and services," Verizon spokeswoman Debra Lewis said in an email. "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."

Verizon had tried to allay fears over its use of supercookies by telling people that it changes the UIDH on a regular basis to protect the privacy of users. The carrier also said it does not use the UIDH to collect Web browsing information or share your browsing activity with advertisers.

But privacy rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation expressed concerns over Verizon's failure to inform users of its practice of using supercookies as well as the inability to opt out. The EFF even started an online petition calling on people to protest the use of these tracking numbers.

"Verizon Wireless has tampered with its users' Web browsing activity to give each user a unique tracking number, allowing advertising networks and other third parties to identify us with no practical way of opting out," the EFF said in its petition. "New research shows Verizon's advertising partner, Turn, using these tracking headers to re-identify users and reinstall cookies on their browsers -- even after they've tried opting out of targeted ads or deleted their cookies. This is an egregious violation of users' expectations of privacy. Setting a "perma-cookie" like this destroys any sense of control or anonymity on the internet."

AT&T stopped its use of supercookies for smartphone users in November, according to the Associated Press and other sources. Neither Sprint nor T-Mobile uses them.

(Via The New York Times)