Verizon to share wireless customers' browsing data with AOL's advertising network

Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and AOL are going to start sharing a lot more data about customers they track for advertising purposes on the Internet. Verizon is combining its existing advertising programs, which can track its wireless customers' mobile browsing habits, with the much larger advertising network it acquired from AOL in its $4.4 billion acquisition of the company.

Verizon said in a privacy notice on its website that "starting in November, we will combine Verizon's existing advertising programs -- Relevant Mobile Advertising and Verizon Selects -- into the AOL Advertising Network. The combination will help make the ads you see more valuable across the different devices and services you use."

AOL's Advertising Network covers around 40 percent of websites on the Internet, according to a report from ProPublica, which first reported on the changes.

Verizon noted that its Relevant Mobile Advertising program uses customers' postal and email addresses, as well as information about their Verizon products and services (such as device type), and information the carrier obtains from other companies (such as gender, age range and interests). Meanwhile, the separate Verizon Selects program uses this same information plus additional information about customers' mobile web browsing, app and feature usage and location of their device. Verizon came under sharp scrutiny earlier this year for inserting an undetectable and undeletable tracking ID called a "Unique Identifier Header" – the so-called "super cookie"-- into its subscribers' mobile Internet devices to track browsing activities. The FCC launched a probe into the program and as a result of the concerns, Verizon let customers totally opt out of the program that put the super cookie into their mobile browsers. AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) stopped that practice in November 2014 after a public outcry.

The AOL Advertising Network uses information collected when customers use AOL services and visit third-party websites where AOL provides advertising services (such as web browsing, app usage and location), as well as information that AOL obtains from third-party partners and advertisers.

"We do not share information that identifies you personally as part of these programs other than with vendors and partners who do work for us," Verizon states on its website. "We require that these vendors and partners protect the information and use it only for the services they are providing us."

Privacy advocates say that Verizon and AOL's use of the unique identifier raises concerns because the tracking  is enabled by default and the information is sent unencrypted and can be easily intercepted, according to ProPublica. "It's an insecure bundle of information following people around on the web," Deji Olukotun, senior global advocacy manager of Access Now, a digital rights organization, told ProPublica.

Verizon said it will share the identifier with "a very limited number of other partners and they will only be able to use it for Verizon and AOL purposes," Karen Zacharia, chief privacy officer at Verizon, told ProPublica. In order for the tracking to work, the report added, Verizon needs to repeatedly insert the identifier into users' Internet traffic, but the identifier can't be inserted when the traffic is encrypted, such as when a customer checks into their bank account.

"I think in some ways it's more privacy protective because it's all within one company," Zacharia said. "We are going to be sharing segment information with AOL so that customers can receive more personalized advertising."

If customers don't want to participate in these programs, they can opt out. Customers can opt out of the Relevant Mobile Advertising program by visiting their privacy choices page or calling 1-866-211-0874. If customers have previously opted out of the Relevant Mobile Advertising, they do not need to opt out again. Verizon said customers are part of Verizon Selects only if they have joined or choose to opt in to Verizon Selects in the future.

For more:
- see this Verizon post
- see this ProPublica article
- see this The Verge article
- see this Ars Technica article 

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