Four senators call for federal probes into Verizon 'supercookies'

Democrats call in the FTC and FCC and threaten new laws

Cookie Monster

Verizon's sweet tooth for cookies has dunked it in more hot water after four Democratic senators urged the US Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to examine the firm's practice of tracking customers' web habits.

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL), Edward Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT), and Brian Schatz (D-HI), have sent letters to FCC boss Tom Wheeler (who has enough on his plate) and FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez after deciding they are unhappy with the telco.

"This whole supercookie business raises the specter of corporations being able to peek into the habits of Americans without their knowledge or consent," said Nelson in an emailed statement. "That's why I think we need to get to the bottom of this and perhaps new legislation."

Back in 2012, Verizon started an advertising information collection system that injected unique identifying headers (UIDHs) into every HTTP request to track visited websites. The program was technically optional, but the UIDH codes were added whether or not users wanted to sign up – Verizon just promised not to peek at the results if you didn't join.

Privacy campaigners started to get worried after AT&T launched a similar scheme, pointing out that installing undeletable cookies could leave people exposed to invasion of privacy.

Those fears turned out to be well-founded when research last month revealed that an American advertising agency, Turn, had figured out a way to install its own information into the cookies and use them to build user profiles.

Turn initially insisted it had done nothing wrong, but dropped the practice shortly afterwards. AT&T likewise announced it was ending its trial of the technology. On January 30, Verizon too said it would discontinue the practice – one day after the four senators sent a letter to the firm expressing concern about the use of UIDH.

Verizon sent a detailed response to the senators on February 4, but it seems that was not enough, and they have now asked for two formal investigations.They want the FCC to look at the general privacy issues of UIDH, and the FTC to find out how the headers were used by third parties.

The Senators' letter said that in the future the decision to install such cookies should be opt-in only, rather than requiring the user to remove themselves from a scheme. Legislation could be in the cards, but given that the the complainants are all Democrats – who are currently the minority party in both houses of Congress – there'd be little chance in getting it passed.

"Verizon takes our customer’s privacy seriously," the company told El Reg. "We’re aware of the letters and will respond." ®

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