AT&T stops adding 'super cookie' to track mobile browsing, but Verizon's program continues

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) has stopped adding an undetectable and undeletable tracking ID into its customers' mobile Internet browsing activity that could be used by the carrier or advertisers to build up a profile of a users' mobile Web usage. Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) is still using the program, which has been dubbed a "super cookie" because it is more powerful than a regular Web tracking cookie that users can delete.

"It has been phased off our network," AT&T spokeswoman Emily Edmonds told ProPublica, which first reported the news.

"We have completed testing of the numeric code that would be part of any new mobile Relevant Advertising program we may launch," Edmonds told USA Today.

The programs were first disclosed in late October and raised hackles because users could not delete the super cookies from their mobile web browsing history. Verizon's Precision Market Insights division launched its profiling technology around two years ago. The technology, part of the company's Relevant Mobile Advertising service, attaches a "token" called a Unique Identifier Header (UIDH) to each Web request from a user that travels over Verizon's wireless network. The system allows Verizon to link a website visitor to its own internal profiles.

AT&T used similar technology for its program. The unique identifier code is attached to each website a customer visits to create a profile of their browsing history.

If AT&T launches any new mobile advertising programs, customers would still be able to opt out of the ad program "and not have the numeric code inserted on their device. Customer trust is important to us, and customers have choices about how we use their information," Edmonds told USA Today. Edmonds also said customers can opt-out of the testing period of the program.

"We don't currently have a Relevant Advertising program in place, but we could have one in the future," Edmonds added to Wired. "It could be this exact program that we tested, it could be something else entirely."

Verizon's program is still continuing, and a Verizon spokeswoman told ProPublica that, "as with any program, we're constantly evaluating." Verizon uses the unique header to monitor users' behavior and offer advertisers insights about customers gleaned from that data.

However, Verizon says the data it sells is not tied to specific users. Further, according to a recent New York Times report, Verizon says it frequently changes the anonymous identifier to protect customer privacy. Verizon says it is unlikely that websites and advertisers could create profiles based on customers, because the identifiers change often.

The main issue is that many consumers, particularly in developed markets like the U.S., have come to rely on their smartphones for a great deal of their Internet access, usage and searches. Smartphones are now people's "second brain," Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told USA Today.

"If you have a question or you're wondering about something, pretty soon you're typing it into a web browser on your phone to answer it," he said. "You don't want everything that goes through your mind being indexed by advertisers and used to sell things to you later."

For more:
- see this ProPublica article
- see these two separate USA Today articles
- see this Wired article

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