FCC is probing Verizon's 'super cookie' used to track mobile browsing

The FCC is investigating whether Verizon Wireless' (NYSE: VZ) program that inserted an undetectable and undeletable tracking ID into its subscribers' mobile Internet browsing activity violates consumer privacy laws.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent a letter to Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) about the matter on March 23, and the letter was made public yesterday. In the letter, Wheeler notes that carriers have access to very sensitive personal information about their customers, including call details, billing data, location information and information on customers' mobile devices.

Wheeler also noted that the Communications Act requires carriers to protect the privacy of that information and that the FCC is "continually examining its policies and rules in light of developments in technologies and business practices."

"Moreover, we are looking specifically into carriers' injection of header information and the collection and use of information about their subscribers' Internet activity," he wrote. "As you suggest, we will be considering the extent to which our rules and policies relating to consumer privacy, data security, and transparency may be implicated. Your exchange of letters with Verizon will be a helpful part of that effort."

The practice, which AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) had engaged in but stopped last fall, sparked a backlash over fears that the program could be used by the carriers or advertisers to build up a profile of a users' mobile Web usage. The program was dubbed a "super cookie" because it is more powerful than a regular Web tracking cookie that users can delete. The programs were first disclosed in October 2014 and in November AT&T stopped adding it to its users' mobile browsers. 

Verizon spokeswoman Debi Lewis declined to comment on the letter and referred to Verizon's statement on the matter from late March. Verizon is letting customers totally opt out of the program that put the super cookie into their mobile browsers.

"Verizon Wireless provides customers the ability to opt-out of our advertising programs, and we have been working to expand the opt-out to include the UIDH, also known as an identifier," the company noted. "Our systems have been changed so that we automatically stop inserting the UIDH for customers who opt out of our Relevant Mobile Advertising program or activate a line that is ineligible for our advertising programs. Government and enterprise lines are ineligible lines and are not included in our advertising programs.  More information on the expansion of the opt out can be found here."

Verizon said it "takes customer privacy seriously and it is a central consideration as we develop new products and services. As the mobile advertising ecosystem evolves, and our advertising business grows, delivering solutions with best-in-class privacy protections remains our focus. As a reminder, we never share information with third parties that identifies our customers as part of our advertising programs."

As The Hill notes, Democratic Sens. Markey, Bill Nelson (Fla.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and are considering legislation on the matter. In February, they asked the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to see if Verizon's super cookie went against the agencies' rules.

For more:
- see this letter (PDF)
- see this The Hill article

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