Verizon Has Quietly Made Its Tracking 'Supercookies' a Lot More Powerful

Verizon is leveraging AOL to follow you more closely around the web.

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Oct 6 2015, 6:58pm

Image: Shutterstock

Verizon, fresh off its acquisition of AOL, is using a controversial technology to combine the power of three major advertising networks using three different types of data mining to follow you around the internet more closely.

Earlier this year, Verizon was roundly criticized and sued for using "super cookies" that tracked its customers around the internet for advertising purposes regardless of whether or not they had deleted standard tracking cookies. So, naturally, it's making the trackers stronger and more persistent than ever.

Traditional web tracking uses cookies—small files stored on your computer—to monitor your behavior around the web. Recently, however, Verizon and other carriers have started using something known as tracking headers to follow you around the web. These trackers inject a special script into the connection of every one of its customers and can't be manually deleted or opted out of without contacting the provider directly. The trackers allowed Verizon and, until recently, AT&T (which stopped using the technology after widespread public outrage) to follow you around the web to target you with ads.

Verizon, however, still uses tracking headers, and its network is about to get a lot more powerful. The company has just quietly announced that tracking headers would play more of a role in its overall advertising strategy moving forward.

Earlier this year, Verizon paid $4.4 billion for AOL and all the companies it owns, including The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Engadget. That takeover was incredibly important because AOL does most of its business these days as an advertising company.

AOL's advertising network serves ads on roughly 40 percent of the web, according to ProPublica. Verizon knows its customers' home addresses, the type of cell phones they own, the number of people on a given phone plan, and customer financial information. That information can be used by AOL and Verizon to target you much more carefully, which equals better (more expensive) ads.

Here's how Verizon pitches the move: "Starting in November, we will combine Verizon's existing advertising programs—Relevant Mobile Advertising and Verizon Selects—into the AOL Advertising Network. The combination will help make the ads you see more valuable across the different devices and services you use."

The company goes on to explain what that means:

"The Relevant Mobile Advertising program uses your postal and email addresses, certain information about your Verizon products and services (such as device type), and information we obtain from other companies (such as gender, age range, and interests). The separate Verizon Selects program uses this same information plus additional information about your use of Verizon services including mobile Web browsing, app and feature usage and location of your device. The AOL Advertising Network uses information collected when you use AOL services and visit third-party websites where AOL provides advertising services (such as Web browsing, app usage, and location), as well as information that AOL obtains from third-party partners and advertisers."

So, Verizon and AOL have formed a massive advertising network—one that it hopes can compete with Google's and Facebook's in terms of what it knows about you. These ads will be delivered all throughout the web to Verizon Wireless customers, who are all automatically opted in to the tracking. Notably, Verizon has just launched its very own video delivery platform, which will also play more valuable video advertisements to customers. The company quite obviously is positioning itself as an advertising one as well as a wireless carrier and internet provider.

Notably, supercookies do not work with HTTPS, an encrypted version of HTTP that has recently gained popularity. Just another reason to encrypt all the things.