Verizon Fined for Secretive Data Collection with “Supercookies”

by Matt Klassen on March 9, 2016

012615_TheWashingtonPost_dangerous-supercookies.largeVerizon has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar, the supercookie jar that is, as the Federal Communications Commission has tagged Big Red with a $1.35 million fine over the use of imbedded software that allows third-party marketers to track customers’ web browsing to gather the information necessary to provide better targeted advertising.

Called “supercookies,” these little innocuous pieces of code are difficult to delete or disable, and although Verizon later added the ability to opt-out of such tracking, most people don’t even know their information is being tracked, packaged, and sold in the first place, let alone know that they need to stop it.

As part of the agreement with the FCC, Verizon will pay a relatively paltry $1.35 million fine and agree to shift from an opt-out policy to an opt-in policy, where the carrier will have to gain explicit customer permission before sharing such information with third-party marketers. It should be noted that Verizon can still use the supercookies to record information on customers that it can use in-house, that is, for Verizon-specific purposes, to better market its products and services.

Let me say at here that I find supercookies both incredibly creepy and incredibly necessary, at least at this stage of the game. There’s no more obvious sign that certain companies we deal are stalking us across the Web, even when we’re not interacting with those particular companies’ websites, then to see advertising about something we’ve looked at somewhere else. Ever seen an ad pop up on Facebook about something you recently searched for somewhere else online? That’s supercookies at work, tracking the things we see and the things we might want to buy.

Of course the endgame for such imbedded tracking technology is to glean the information necessary to learn our preferences and deliver more individualized advertisers, bringing the sort of targeted advertising that we all dream of, but as the FCC has ruled here, such tracking needs to be done with the explicit consent of the consumer. No creepy covert tracking please, particularly in this age of increased privacy awareness and security threats.

“Consumers care about privacy and should have a say in how their personal information is used, especially when it comes to who knows what they’re doing online,” FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc said in a press release.

The decision comes at a time when government bureaucracy is clearly trying to grapple with the thorny issues surrounding customer privacy in a technological age, with the FCC in particular working to take a frontline role in ensuring privacy and security standards, particularly in wireless and broadband industries that, until now, have been about as lawless as the Wild West.

As the amount of data available on each person increases, companies like Verizon will continually find ways to monetize it, leaving the ethics of such activities, like deploying secretive supercookies for instance, to the regulators who are undoubtedly several years behind on writing and updating legislation. While the general public would clearly appreciate the efforts of companies to curb such unscrupulous data collection, even if the endgame of such efforts is attractive, we all know that won’t happen, and we’re left with what we see now: meaningless fines, a slap on the wrist, a promise to do better and the quick deployment of some other data collection scheme that skirts the law and confounds regulators for several more years to come.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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