It’s common knowledge that in today’s advertisement driven world, consumer data is literally worth its weight in gold to a wide variety of companies. Consumers are tracked in so many ways that it could literally make your head spin, with apps and services often tracking consumer behavior and reading personal data without them even knowing it. The responsible companies have an opt out option for this, which is why this special Verizon cookie being used by ad companies (that cannot be deleted) is a genuine cause for concern.
How it works
The unique cookie is known as a UIDH (Unique Identifier Header), with reports surfacing back in October of last year that both AT&T and Verizon were using them. AT&T stopped using them all together, but Verizon continues to use the cookie, which creates a permanent carrier level cookie that cannot be deleted.
The UIDH, which is used to track users based on location, interests and more, is something that Verizon doesn’t believe ad companies will use to send targeted ads to consumers due to the fact that it the identifier itself frequently changes. But a discovery by a Stanford computer scientist reveals that it’s not only possible, but is already being done.
Just delete the cookie? Not so fast
Jonathan Mayer made the discovery of a company called Turn using the cookie to reproduce their own tracking cookies when various websites like Twitter or Facebook are visited, meaning that if a customer clears their browser cookies, that a new cookie is created when the Verizon identifier shows up again. In simple terms, if you delete the cookie, it simply gets recreated, and tracking continues.
Turn doesn’t deny using the cookie, and argues that “clearing a cookie cache is not a widely recognized method of reliably expressing an opt-out preference”. But with no opt out service from Verizon or Turn available, there’s no way currently for Verizon subscribers to stop the tracking from taking place. Turn went on to say that if customers don’t want this happening, that they should use opt out tools from companies like the Network Advertising Initiative or the Digital Advertising Alliance, which is is hardly a consumer friendly option. At the same time, considering Turn does not recreate opt out cookies for consumers that do take action, it would seem that consumers have no choice in the matter.
Is there anything that can be done?
While using an ad blocker (which Google removed from the Play Store some time ago) could be a solution (it’s currently the only real solution), it certainly is disturbing that consumers have to resort to such measures in order to stop being tracked. Consumers should always be given a choice in opting out of tracking, and given that there currently is no permanent way to do that in this instance, it seems as if privacy rights are not something that Turn, and Verizon for that matter, are taking seriously.
I’m interested to hear from Verizon customers on this issue. Here in Europe, I imagine that consumers (and judges) would lose their mind if this happened, but it seems that US companies sometimes have a much easier time getting away with such practices.
What do you think about the situation? Should consumers legally have the right to opt out of tracking, or is tracking simply something we all need to accept in this day and age? Let us know what you think in the comments below.