verizon supercookies

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Version’s use of unique undeletable identifiers (UIDH) the so called ‘Verizon supercookies’ has landed Verizon Communications Inc in big trouble with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is, if you consider $1.35 million big trouble.

verizon supercookies

For Verizon, which as of 2014 is the largest US wireless communications service provider, that fine is merely a huge chunk of change. But the collateral damage to its image as a responsible corporate entity is incalculable. And that is why sanctions like this from regulatory authorities is important to keep big firms on their toes. Mess around with the public, your image gets muddied is the underlying message from the FCC.

How did Verizon get into trouble over the supercookies? To put it another way, why are the Verizon suoercookies so bad it warranted a sanction from the FCC?

The Verizon supercookies used by the telecoms giant are basically powerful and complicated codes used by Verizon to track its customers around the Internet. What makes Verizon supercookies special is that they are almost impossible to detect and therefore equally impossible to disable. Once it infects your system, you are stuck with them. Tracking users online enabled Verizon to send targeted ads to them based on their online activities. Verizon also uses the data for profit by selling them to interested marketing companies.

verizon supercookies
John Stratton CEO of Verizon Wireles

Verizon supercookies appeared on the scene as early as December 2012. Concerned Internet Security groups and individuals raised alarmed over the use of these cookies at that time. But Verizon rushed to calm people. Saying it wasn’t as bad as what critics pointed out. But the cries persisted and it was later shown that the use of Verizon supercookies actually exposed people’s online activities to the public so that any one can view it. It wasn’t until October 2014, that Verizon acknowledged the problem and moved to rectify it. By then it was already too late as the FCC had already begun investigating the issue.

The result of the FCC probe is the sanction imposed on Verizon. This was how the FCC news bulletin reported the development:

The Federal Communications Commission today announced a settlement resolving an investigation into Verizon Wireless’s practice of inserting unique identifier headers or so-called “supercookies” into its customers’ mobile Internet traffic without their knowledge or consent. These unique, undeletable identifiers – referred to as UIDH – are inserted into web traffic and used to identify customers in order to deliver targeted ads from Verizon and other third parties. As a result of the investigation and settlement, Verizon Wireless is notifying consumers about its targeted advertising programs, will obtain customers’ opt-in consent before sharing UIDH with third parties, and will obtain customers’ opt-in or opt-out consent before sharing UIDH internally within the Verizon corporate family.

So in addition to the fine, Verizon must disable all its cookies. And can only use them if they get the consent of Internet subscribers. What this means is that subscribers must be told the full implications of accepting Verizon supercookies while surfing the net.

The FCC action is what responsible regulatory agencies should be doing constantly. Internet subscribers in Nigeria feel abandoned by the NCC. We get unsolicited ads online and sometimes we wonder how certain mails get into our inboxes. I can’t count the number of times  I see ads of companies or firms on my Facebook page shortly after visiting the company’s website to check something out. So while other countries are doing everything to protect citizens online, our private data are at the mercy of ISP’s and firms like Facebook and Google. And the NCC is doing next to nothing about it.

photo credits: washingtonpost.com; forbes.com

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