Verizon Wireless tracking 100 million users with undetectable 'supercookie'

Verizon Wireless is tracking users' mobile Internet activity using a new 'supercookie,' that is undetectable and virtually unblockable. Verizon is using that information to allow advertisers to target individual users with marketing campaigns. The new supercookie has privacy advocates contemplating legal action. 

John Minchillo/AP/File
Pedestrians use their cell phones as they pass a Verizon Wireless store near New York's Union Square on June 6.

Verizon Wireless has been the ire of privacy advocates for a while. It was revealed last year that the mobile carrier was handing over phone records to the National Security Agency, and last month the group settled charges that it wasn't notifying users that they could opt-out of tracking. This week privacy advocates have a new reason to protest Verizon.

Verizon Wireless is reportedly tracking more than 100 million mobile customers by installing a "supercookie" onto mobile devices, according to the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Verizon is using the information to give advertisers the ability to advertise based on an individuals Internet activity. 

The supercookies are almost untraceable, according to the EFF. Users cannot block supercookies through privacy settings or incognito modes, which have become a popular way to block outside tracking. Verizon is able to understand an individual's taste or interests by cataloging what websites a user visits, and then uses that information to allow advertisers to target people with specific ads.

"For nearly twenty years now, the cookie has become the standard way to track people online, for better or worse," Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, the senior staff technologist at EFF, told Marketplace. "The metaphor I use when I teach is I say a cookie is like a name tag."

Privacy advocates are alarmed by the new supercookies because they believe other sites will begin to use similar trackers, which will dramatically increase the amount of data collected on ordinary users.

“You’re making it very difficult for people who want privacy to find it on the Internet,” Paul Ohm, a former Federal Trade Commission official who teaches at the University of Colorado Law School, told The Washington Post.   

Verizon began tracking 106 million customers in November 2012, the company told The Post. Verizon is only tracking its retail customers, and is not tracking its business or government users. Verizon says it sent notifications to customers to offer them a way out of the program, but it would not go into further detail about how many people chose to opt-out. 

While users are able to opt-out of the program, it appears the supercookie is never fully disabled. 

"Verizon does provide a sort of limited opt-out for individual customers, but it appears that the opt-out does not actually disable the header" Mr. Hoffman-Andrews wrote in his report. "Instead, it merely tells Verizon not to share detailed demographic information with advertisers...."

This isn't the first time Verizon has come under fire for the data it collects on its customers. In September, Verizon paid $7.4 million to settle charges that it used consumer information for marketing. Verizon failed to notify two million new customers of their privacy rights and how to opt-out of having their personal information used for marketing campaigns.

AT&T is conducting tests with a similar type of supercookie. The company hasn't said how long it's been tracking users Internet activities, but said it has not yet used the information for marketing purposes. 

“We are considering such a program, and any program we would offer would maintain our fundamental commitment to customer privacy,” Emily J. Edmonds, an AT&T spokeswoman, told The Post in an e-mail.

EFF has raised complaints with the Federal Communications Commission. The group is contemplating legal action against Verizon because the supercookie is in possible violation of the Communications Act, which prohibits companies from selling revealing information on its customers. Mr. Ohm, told The Post, the companies could also be in violation of the federal wiretap act, which prohibits altering personal communications without court order, if the company didn't send proper notifications to customers.

"What Verizon and AT&T are doing -- and why they might have the leg up here, if there's no backlash from privacy concerns -- is that their network goes across devices," Jenny Wise, mobile marketing analyst at Forrester, told Marketplace. "So not only do you know what I'm doing when I use my mobile phone, I'm also using that same network when I'm on my tablet, or when I'm on my TV."

For those looking to opt-out of the tracking, Verizon has created a webpage detailing the necessary steps.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Verizon Wireless tracking 100 million users with undetectable 'supercookie'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today