AT&T To No Longer Insert Tracking Cookies On Your Smartphone

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
AT&T Mobility announced on Friday that it would no longer be attaching hidden, unblockable tracking codes to online data transmitted from their customer’s smartphones, various media outlets are reporting.
According to Jack Gillum of the Associated Press (AP), the second-largest cellular provider in the US said that it would be removing a hidden string of numbers and letters transmitted to websites visited by its subscribers.
Those tracking codes “made it nearly impossible to shield its subscribers’ identities online” by tracking their activity across the Internet, Gillum said. The practice is “a lucrative data-mining opportunity for advertisers that could still reveal users’ identities based on their browsing habits,” the AP reporter added.
The use of these codes, which are also known as “perma-cookies,” came to light in late October when it was revealed that AT&T’s rival Verizon Wireless had been quietly inserting a string of approximately 50 letters, numbers and characters into data transmitted from customers to each website they had visited during the past two years.
AT&T’s customer tracking system was known by the name “Relevant Advertising,” and according to MacRumors reporter Juli Clover, it was the result of a pilot program the company had been experimenting with. She added that the company terminated the program in the wake of the negative press such practices received last month.
Verizon referred to their “perma-cookie” code as a “Unique Identifier Header (UIDH),” but experts said that it basically acted like a short-term serial number used by advertisers to identify specific subscribers over the Internet. Unlike AT&T, however, the company told Gillum that they have no plans to discontinue use of the UIDH program.
Verizon spokeswoman Debra Lewis told the AP that the code is not inserted into business and government customers, and that “as with any program, we’re constantly evaluating.” Lewis also noted that subscribers can request their codes not be used for ad-related tracking, but Gillum said the data will still be sent to websites, even if customers explicitly state they do not want their information to be used for marketing purposes.
“The tracking codes are part of the latest plan by the cellular industry to keep tabs on users and their devices,” Gillum said, adding that the codes “don’t explicitly contain personal information” but are “unique and nonetheless sent to websites alongside personal details that a user may submit voluntarily… That means enough data can transform a large chunk of random digits into a digital fingerprint that’s as identifying as a Social Security number.”
“This is more like a license plate for your brain,” Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist with the nonprofit digital-rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told the AP. “Everything you wonder about, and read, and ask the Internet about gets this header attached to it. And there are ad agencies out there that try to associate that browsing history with anything that identifies you.”
Mobile customers looking to avoid being tracked by these “perma-cookies” could only use their mobile device’s Internet functions while connected to Wi-Fi, though as noted in October by PC World’s Ian Paul, it would be rather inconvenient to avoid wireless networks completely. Alternatively, they could use SSL (HTTPS) encryption while visiting websites, or connecting to the Internet through a virtual private network.
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