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
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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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