While the dizzying extent of government surveillance is disturbing enough to make your head spin, private companies are also doing their best to demolish every last shred of Internet privacy. Verizon has been covertly tracking Internet activities of its 106 million customers with aptly-dubbed “supercookies.” AT&T is in process of actively testing this technology. Unlike the usual “cookies,” these trackers are so powerful that even savvy users would have trouble attempting to erase them.
“Supercookies” cannot be evaded by using “in-private” or “incognito” browser settings. Only encryption can keep a “supercookie” from tracking a user. While everyday consumers had no say in how their activities are being tracked and recorded, Verizon excluded all government and some business customers from the program.
Verizon and AT&T are using the “supercookie” technology to monitor the websites visited by their customers, meticulously collecting this information. The companies claim to have taken steps to alert their customers about this tracking. However, sending out multi-page notices in fine print, also known as “mouseprint,” is a move designed to protect corporations from potential litigation — it isn’t meant to notify surveillance-weary consumers.
Verizon failed to disclose how many of its customers actually reviewed the said “notices” and elected to opt-out of the program. Even those users who did opt out still have a unique identifying code attached to all of their Web traffic. The only difference is that the information that is being collected from the unwilling participants is not sold to advertisers. According to AT&T, its program, unlike Verizon’s, would not attach an identifying code to its customers’ Internet traffic if they choose to opt out. In 2008, officials from AT&T and Verizon assured a Senate committee that they wouldn’t begin tracking their customers without seeking explicit permission first.
“Supercookie” tracking could expose Internet behavior of individual users to a wide range of outsiders and may also violate federal telecommunications and wiretapping laws. Verizon started this consumer profiling as part of its Precision Market Insights program, more than two years ago. It eventually expanded to cover all Verizon Wireless subscribers, under the company’s Relevant Mobile Advertising service.
Each mobile device is bugged with an individual token, known as the Unique Identifier Header (UIDH). Every move made by the user on the Internet is recorded, linking this history to a particular mobile device. This information is then used to sell targeted advertising. Unique codes get shared among websites, advertisers and data brokers. This process allows so much information to be collected that individual users are effectively “de-anonymized,” whereby their names and other identifying data is uncovered and shared.
AT&T’s tracking program is not as advanced as Verizon and, according to the company, is still in testing. Verizon’s use of the “supercookies” will likely encourage other cellular carriers and other Internet providers to copycat the use of this technology, competing for a larger share of the multibillion-dollar advertising profits enjoyed by Google, Facebook and other Internet giants.
You can find just about anything on the Internet, where searches yield staggering amounts of results. One thing you’re least likely to find on the web is privacy.