Senators Urge FCC, FTC Investigation Of Supercookies

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, and a handful of other legislators have called on the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Verizon's use of so-called supercookies.

Nelson, along with Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), ranking member of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee; Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), ranking member of the Communications Subcommittee; and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), had written to Verizon chairman Lowell McAdam last week to register their concern in the wake of a report that third-party ad company Turn, had been using Verizon's so-called supercookies, which smartphone users can't delete, to to covertly track users' 'net surfing even after those surfing records had been deleted.

Turn has suspended the practice, they said, but that did not change what they saw as a deliberate circumvention of consumer choice and a violation of privacy.

Nelson's office said Verizon has said it is working on a fix that would let consumers opt out of targeted advertising. But the legislators also signaled Verizon did not provide them enough information, and Nelson would rather it be an opt-in regime and joined with two of the others to ask the FCC and FTC for "a thorough examination. Schatz was not on the follow-up letter. A source said his staffers were still reviewing Verizon's response.

"Verizon’s use of super cookies is the tip of a consumer data gathering complex that requires scrutiny and safeguards by the FCC," agreed Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Phone and cable companies are building a powerful data surveillance system on their customers, including tracking them over all the devices and platforms they control. Customer privacy is being eroded daily."

Verizon said in a statement it "takes our customers' privacy seriously. We’re aware of the letters and will respond.”

In its resonse to the initial letter from last week, Verizon EVP and general counsel Craig Silliman said the company is portecting its customers information, according to a copy obtained by MultiChannel News. .

"Privacy is important to Verizon, and we have implemented our advertising programs in a way that protects our customers’ privacy," he wrote. "We never share information that individually identifies our customers with third parties and we give customers appropriate choices about whether and in what circumstances they will see advertising that is tailored to them. We are also sensitive to concerns raised by our customers, and we make changes to our programs to address their concerns. For example, last week we announced that we are implementing a process to automatically disable the UIDH for customers who opt out of our advertising program."

Copies of the two letters are reprinted below:

The Honorable Tom Wheeler


Federal Communications Commission

445 12th Street, S.W.

Washington, D.C.  20554

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

We recently wrote to Verizon concerning news reports that a third-party advertising company had been exploiting a mobile tracking technology – colloquially known as a “supercookie” – that Verizon developed to collect information on the wireless Internet activity of its 100 million customers.  A copy of that letter and the response we received from Craig Silliman, Verizon’s Executive Vice President, Public Policy and General Counsel, are attached.

As you know, consumer privacy has long been a priority of the Commerce Committee.   As we consider whether legislation may be necessary to fully protect consumers from the use of these supercookies, we also believe the Federal Communications Commission should use its full existing statutory authority to examine these practices.  In particular, the use of these supercookies may implicate the Commission’s rules and policies related to consumer privacy and transparency.  Thank you and we look forward to your response.


Letter to Federal Trade Commission:

February 6, 2015

The Honorable Edith Ramirez


Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20580

Dear Chairwoman Ramirez:

We write this letter to you requesting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate Verizon’s disclosures to wireless customers with regard to its mobile tracking technology, colloquially known as a “supercookie.” Specifically, numerous press outlets reported that the online advertising company, Turn, used Verizon’s network-based persistent identifier to regenerate browser cookies that consumers had deleted from their mobile devices. On January 29, we sent a letter to Verizon Chairman and CEO, Lowell C. McAdam, asking (among other things):

“What, if any information and disclosures does Verizon provide its wireless customers about how third-party companies use or can use Verizon’s mobile tracker? How has the policy changed, if at all, given press accounts about Turn?”

In response, the company sent us its “Full Privacy Policy” but did not provide any other public disclosures or information provided to wireless customers. Verizon also did not answer whether its policy had changed upon discovery of Turn’s practices.

We have attached the “Full Privacy Policy” for your review and ask that you further scrutinize all public and customer disclosures and information relevant to the use of its supercookie by third parties, including disclosures made before discovery of Turn’s practices.

We appreciate the Commission’s long and distinguished enforcement actions against companies that engage in deceptive practices and violate consumer privacy. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.