FTC requires Verizon 'supercookie' partner Turn to allow opt-outs

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The FTC is requiring Turn Inc. to enable mobile and fixed-line users to opt out of its “supercookies” technology.

The Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement with one of Verizon’s advertising partners requiring the company to enable mobile and fixed-line users to opt out of its “supercookie” technology.

Both Verizon and AT&T have used supercookies, which involve inserting an undetectable and undeletable tracking ID into their subscribers' mobile Internet browsing activity. The FCC said it had determined that Verizon had been using supercookies as early as December 2012, and in March the agency said Verizon would pay a $1.35 million fine and adopt a three-year compliance plan as part of a settlement.

Verizon had reportedly continued to use supercookies into 2015, while AT&T stopped adding them to users’ browsers in late 2014.

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Turn Inc., a California-based company, used the identifiers “to track millions of Verizon Wireless customers, even after they blocked or deleted cookies from websites,” the FTC alleged in a complaint, despite a policy claiming that customers could block or limit the cookies. The agency also charged that Turn’s opt-out mechanism had applied only to mobile browsers but did not allow users to block targeted ads on mobile applications as the company had claimed.

The technology has been dubbed a supercookie because it’s more powerful than a typical web-tracking cookie that users can delete. Supercookies are unique identifier codes that are attached to each website customers visit, creating a profile of their browsing histories.

The FTC announced a settlement this week barring Turn from misrepresenting the extent of its online tracking or users’ ability to control the company’s use of their data. Turn is also required to provide “an effective opt-out” for users who don’t want their information used for ads, and must place a link on its home page directing users to a disclosure of what information the company collects.

“Turn tracked millions of consumers online and through mobile apps even if they had taken steps to block or limit tracking,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release. “The FTC’s order will ensure the company honors consumers’ privacy choices.”

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