Verizon lets users opt-out of controversial code tracker, will share data with AOL

Verizon will start sharing user advertising program data, including a controversial code tracker, with the AOL Advertising Network.
Verizon will start sharing user advertising program data, including a controversial code tracker, with the AOL Advertising Network.

Verizon said in an October Privacy Notice it will start sharing user advertising program data including a controversial code tracker with the AOL Advertising Network in November, but will allow users to opt-out.

The tracker is called a “Unique Identifier Header” or UIDH and is inserted into all unencrypted web traffic that flows through the wireless network by default in order to track user demographics. It has been in use since 2012 and was dubbed a “perma-cookie” by some privacy advocates when knowledge of it went mainstream in 2014. 

Initially users weren't allowed to opt out of the tracker's use, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo.

The privacy advocate told SCMagazine.com people were eventually given a chance to opt-out of having their demographic information sold to third parties but the UIDH was still attached to their data. Verizon said customers can now fully opt out, though Cardozo said the effort fell short.

“The fact that this is opt-out and not opt-in demonstrates a deep disrespect for user privacy,” he said.

Verizon also clarified that the data collected will only be available to its partners and AOL.

But the partnership with AOL means that the more sites will have access to the information collected by the UIDH and the exclusive access will make it more valuable as a behavior tracking tool, Cardozo said.

Verizon spokesperson David Samberg defended Verizon's use of opt-out to SCMagazine.com in an email correspondence, noting that “Verizon and AOL offer a growing list of free services for our customers that are supported by advertising.”

Samberg said Verizon has “made the opt-out process simple for those customers who do not wish to participate in these advertising programs" and added that "this kind of 'opt-out' is industry standard for advertising based on identifiers."

The combined advertising programs will also share online and device identifiers, including AOL browser cookies, ad IDs from Apple and Google, as well as user information such as gender, age range, and interests.

Users who don't want to participate in the advertising programs may opt out through their online accounts or by calling their wireless providers.

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