Democrats in Senate Ask FCC, FTC to Investigate Verizon Supercookies

Josh LongCiting privacy concerns, a group of U.S. senators recently asked federal regulators to investigate the use of so-called supercookies by Verizon Wireless.

Lawmakers submitted the requests to the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission following news reports that an online advertising company known as Turn used Verizon’s supercookies to track the Internet activity of millions of Verizon subscribers, even after they had moved to delete the cookies.

“This whole supercookie business raises the specter of corporations being able to peek into the habits of Americans without their knowledge or consent,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) said in a statement that accompanied a Feb. 6 press release. “That’s why I think we need to get to the bottom of this and perhaps new legislation.”

Jay Mayfield, an FTC spokesman, confirmed the agency received a letter from the senators but declined further comment.

An FCC spokesman said, “Consumers expect that their private information remain just that: private. The Commission takes violations of consumer privacy extremely seriously. We have put in place robust rules to protect consumer privacy and regularly pursue enforcement for violations of those rules.”

In September, the FCC announced entering a $7.4 million settlement with Verizon to resolve a probe into the company’s use of personal consumer information for marketing purposes.

The privacy concerns cited by the senators may have been triggered by a Jan. 14 ProPublica article, which detailed a practice by Turn to track Verizon’s customers’ wireless habits. The Washington Post followed up with an article a few days later. On its website, Turn bills itself as a “recognized leader in platform-based mobile, video, display, TV, and social advertising.”

Four Democrats in the Senate, including Nelson, expressed concern over the reports in a Jan. 29 letter to Verizon Chief Executive Lowell McAdam. Joining Nelson were Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. 

“The use of so-called ‘supercookies,’ which smartphone users cannot delete, and their potential misuse and abuse by advertisers and other third parties raise very serious privacy concerns,” the senators wrote in the letter to McAdam. “Specifically, Turn reportedly found a way to use Verizon’s supercookies to covertly …

… track smartphone users Internet visits, even after the users had deleted records of their online activity. As a result, Turn continued to collect customer data and monitor their online activities without their knowledge or consent.”

In a blog last month responding to the ProPublica article, Turn general counsel Max Ochoa said the company honors requests by customers to opt out of tailored advertising. But he appeared to acknowledge that a person might receive advertising even after he or she clears a cookie cache on a browser.

“There are definitely people who feel that if they clear their cookies, they won’t be tracked, and that is not strictly accurate,” Joshua Koran, senior vice president of product management at Turn, told ProPublica.

“It is vital to note that clearing a cookie cache is not a widely recognized method of reliably expressing an opt-out preference,” Ochoa wrote in the blog. “The advertising industry has worked together to develop far more effective methods for consumers to express the choice not to receive tailored ads.”

Responding to the senators’ letter, Verizon’s executive vice president Craig Silliman said the company never shares with third parties information that discloses the identity of its customers. He also said Verizon is implementing a process to automatically disable the use of an identifier for subscribers who opt out of the company’s advertising program.

Silliman noted Verizon has two advertising programs that use a so-called “unique identifier header” or UIDH, the subject of the senators’ letter. Under one program, Verizon discloses anonymous information to its advertising partners about groups of customers based on their postal address, general information concerning their Verizon services and additional data that other companies provide, he said. If customers opt in to another program, Verizon shares information with advertisers based on customers’ Web browsing, location and application usage, he explained.

“Verizon does not disclose our customers’ web browsing or personal information to third parties as part of either of these programs, and our ad technology partners are not permitted to use what they receive from Verizon for any purposes outside of the programs,” Silliman wrote.

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