AT&T Quietly Backs Away From Its Use of Sneaky Super Cookies

from the you're-the-product----and-the-guinea-pig dept

As we noted a few weeks ago, Verizon and AT&T recently began utilizing a controversial new snoopvertising method that involves meddling with user traffic to insert a unique identifier traffic header, or X-UIDH. This header is then read by marketing partners to track your behavior around the Internet, which Verizon and AT&T then hope to sell to marketers and other third parties. In addition to the fact they’re modifying user traffic, these headers can also be read by third parties — even if customers opt out from carrier-specific programs.

After the practice received heat from security experts and groups like the EFF, AT&T has since announced they’re backing away from the practice. AT&T insists that unlike Verizon (who has been using this technology commercially for two years with clients like Twitter), AT&T’s implementation was only a trial. That trial is now complete, insists AT&T, and while they may return to the practice — AT&T promises it will be somehow modified so user information isn’t broadcast and opting out actually works:

“AT&T says it has stopped its controversial practice of adding a hidden, undeletable tracking number to its mobile customers’ Internet activity. “It has been phased off our network,” said Emily J. Edmonds, an AT&T spokeswoman….AT&T said it used the tracking numbers as part of a test, which it has now completed. Edmonds said AT&T may still launch a program to sell data collected by its tracking number, but that if and when it does, “customers will be able to opt out of the ad program and not have the numeric code inserted on their device.”

The EFF confirms that the appearance of the header has indeed declined on AT&T’s network. But while AT&T appears to have smelled the looming lawsuit on the wind, Verizon so far has stood tough on their use of the technology. Verizon says that the company’s program continues but as with any program, Verizon is “constantly evaluating.” Years ago when Verizon was fighting tougher privacy rules, the company proclaimed that “public shame” would keep them honest.

This particular privacy abuse took two years for savvy network engineers and security consultants to even spot, and so far there’s no indication that two weeks of public scolding have done anything to thwart Verizon’s ambitions. Cue the class actions and regulatory wrist slaps.

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Companies: at&t, verizon

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Comments on “AT&T Quietly Backs Away From Its Use of Sneaky Super Cookies”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Actually, the technique was used by a private person to intercept the unencrypted header and collecting data along with the phone number using the connection by setting up his own host to collect the data. Since the data is completely unencrypted, holds strongly identifying data and isn’t in any way restricted to be read by a specific server, the system is quite the shady marketing companys wet dream.

Such idiots. It is so far from even basic standards of security that using it with immediately identifying data such as a phone number should be punishable by law…

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Edmonds said AT&T may still launch a program to sell data collected by its tracking number, but that if and when it does, “customers will be able to opt out of the ad program and not have the numeric code inserted on their device.”
Or just make it opt-in. You’d be surprised how many people will say no to being tracked, even if their data is ‘anonymised’. Oh, wait…

James says:

They still want this

AT&T remains part of the misleadingly named Open Web Alliance whose goal is to break end-to-end encryption, particularly SPDY. The launch presentation (from May) explicitly lists UIDH and “value-added services” such as ad insertion as things that will be broken by the adoption of SPDY.

There doesn’t seem to have been much progress since then thankfully, although I haven’t checked the HTTP2 working group to see if their “open proxy” proposal has been put forward there.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Better than Verizon

… that’s damning with faint praise, but this:

Verizon offers its customers an opportunity to opt out of the program. But opting out doesn’t remove the tracking ID.

Means that Verizon does not, in fact, offer its customers an opportunity to opt out. That means that on this point, for the time being, Verizon is the greater evil.

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