Senators Demand Federal Investigation of Verizon’s ‘Supercookies’

Commerce Committee Democrats believe Verizon may have broken the law with its Web tracking practices.

A person walks past a Verizon Store as a sign on a window announces the arrival of Apple's iPhone to Verizon February 3, 2011 in Orem, Utah. The iPhone will be available on Verizon's network starting February 10.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
Feb. 6, 2015, 5:33 a.m.

Key Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors are ur­ging fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors to launch an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Ve­r­i­zon for track­ing smart­phone and tab­let users against their wishes.

The top Demo­crat on the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, Bill Nel­son, along with Ed­ward Mar­key and Richard Blu­menth­al sent let­ters to the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion and the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion on Fri­day, ask­ing the agen­cies to con­sider bring­ing charges against Ve­r­i­zon for its use of “su­per­cook­ies.”

Many web­sites and ad­vert­isers track users’ activ­ity through “cook­ies,” small files in­stalled on com­puters that identi­fy the users as they browse the Web. But late last year, se­cur­ity re­search­ers began rais­ing the alarm that Ve­r­i­zon was us­ing a new kind of “su­per­cook­ie” that was im­possible to opt out of.

Nel­son said he may also in­tro­duce a bill to re­strict the use of su­per­cook­ies.

“This whole su­per­cook­ie busi­ness raises the specter of cor­por­a­tions be­ing able to peek in­to the habits of Amer­ic­ans without their know­ledge or con­sent,” the Flor­ida Demo­crat said in a state­ment. “That’s why I think we need to get to the bot­tom of this and per­haps new le­gis­la­tion.”

After the sen­at­ors first raised con­cerns about Ve­r­i­zon’s pri­vacy prac­tices, the com­pany said last week it would al­low users to opt out of the su­per­cook­ies.

“We listen to our cus­tom­ers and provide them the abil­ity to opt out of our ad­vert­ising pro­grams,” Debi Lewis, a Ve­r­i­zon spokes­wo­man, said at the time. “We have be­gun work­ing to ex­pand the opt-out to in­clude the iden­ti­fi­er re­ferred to as the UIDH, and ex­pect that to be avail­able soon. As a re­mind­er, Ve­r­i­zon nev­er shares cus­tom­er in­form­a­tion with third parties as part of our ad­vert­ising pro­grams.”

The com­pany said Fri­day it is aware of the let­ters to reg­u­lat­ors and plans to is­sue a re­sponse. 

The FTC has sued Web com­pan­ies such as Face­book and Google in re­cent years for vi­ol­at­ing the terms of their own pri­vacy policies.

It’s un­clear what au­thor­ity the FCC cur­rently has over Ve­r­i­zon’s mo­bile-data busi­ness. But that could change un­der the agency’s net-neut­ral­ity rules, set for a vote later this month, which would ex­pand reg­u­lat­ory au­thor­ity over cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers and im­pose new pri­vacy reg­u­la­tions.

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