Verizon Wireless is getting slapped with a fine and privacy requirements after inserting undeletable tracking cookies into users’ browsing sessions.
As part of a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission, Verizon will have to get users’ permission to share these “supercookies” with third-party partners. However, users will still have to opt out of tracking by Verizon itself. Verizon will be notifying subscribers about the changes, and has also agreed to a $1.35 million fine.
With tracking cookies, users are assigned a unique identifier that’s tied to their web activity, building up anonymized profiles that advertisers can target. But unlike conventional tracking cookies, which users can erase or avoid by opening a private browsing session, supercookies or “perma-cookies” cannot easily be deleted.
Consumer groups such as Electronic Frontier Foundation started raising concerns about Verizon’s supercookies in late 2014, and lawmakers soon began calling on the FCCto investigate. In March 2015, Verizon added a way for wireless subscribers to opt out of the tracking through its privacy settings page.
Currently, Verizon is the only U.S. wireless provider that uses supercookies, though several other telcos around the world also track their users this way. AT&T had tested a similar program in the United States, but cancelled it in late 2014 as negative attention piled up.
The FCC is chalking up the settlement to its Open Internet order, also known as its net neutrality rules. Under these rules, wired and wireless service providers must be transparent about their network management and terms so users can make informed decisions. The FCC claims that Verizon violated those transparency requirements by failing to disclose its use of supercookies.
Why this matters: The settlement is a partial victory for Verizon subscribers, but still requires them to take the final step of opting out to disable supercookies entirely. Given that Verizon now owns a major ad network through its acquisition of AOL last year, the company will likely do plenty of its own targeted advertising even for users who haven’t opted into third-party tracking.