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How to Say “No Thanks” to Verizon’s Supercookie

Much virtual ink has been spilled discussing Verizon Wireless’s so-called “supercookie.” While it may sound delicious, it’s actually a threat to your privacy, and Verizon customers can finally opt out of it.

You’re probably familiar with standard Web cookies, which are small pieces of data stored by your browser to retain information. Cookies are mostly used to make Web sites work better, such as by keeping you logged in to a Web site across launches or maintaining the contents of an online cart as you shop. However, cookies can also can be used for less constructive purposes, such as tracking your online activity in order to serve you targeted ads. You may not like everything cookies are used for, but they’re hard to live without. Most Web browsers help you block “third-party cookies” (such as those used by ad networks), and browser plug-ins such as Disconnect can block even more unwanted cookies while allowing useful ones.

So what makes Verizon’s supercookie different? It’s created not by a Web site you visit, but by Verizon itself. It takes the form of a unique identifying number inserted into all of your HTTP requests to load Web sites, called a Unique Identifier Header (UIDH). Verizon Wireless began setting these supercookies in 2012, and it sells the resulting data to advertisers, who use it to better target advertising to you. It would be like your phone company listening in on your phone calls and interrupting every so often with special offers.

Supercookies are worse than regular cookies for a few reasons:

  1. They offer no benefit apart from possibly more targeted ads.
  2. They are inserted by Verizon, whom you’re already paying for service.
  3. Supercookies can’t be deleted, or avoided with browser privacy modes.
  4. Because of the way Verizon inserts the UIDH, third parties can intercept it and use it to track your online activity.

Thanks in part to pressure from the U.S. Senate, Verizon is now allowing customers to opt-out of supercookies.

Here’s how:

  1. Log into your Verizon Wireless account.
  2. If you’re not taken there automatically, click My Verizon.
  3. Click Manage Privacy Settings in the left-hand sidebar.
  4. Under Relevant Mobile Advertising, find the column that says, “No, I don’t want to participate in Relevant Mobile Advertising,” and select each phone line under that column, or click Select All.
  5. Click Save Changes.

If you see nothing under Relevant Mobile Advertising, your ad blocker may be preventing you from seeing those settings. Either disable it, or disable it for that specific page, and reload.

While you’re reviewing your privacy settings, you may also wish to opt out of Verizon Wireless sharing your Customer Proprietary Network Information Settings and using your mobile usage information for Business & Marketing Reports.

You can also opt-out with a phone call. Here’s how:

  1. Dial 1-866-211-0874.
  2. Enter your Verizon Wireless phone number.
  3. Enter your billing account password.
  4. Press 3 to edit privacy settings for both Business & Marketing Reports and Relevant Mobile Advertising.
  5. To opt out for all lines on the account, press 2.

The account owner should receive a free text message to verify the updated privacy settings.

How can you be sure that opting-out worked? Pick up your mobile device, disable Wi-Fi, and head over to amibeingtracked.com via cellular Internet. Tap Test Now, and the site will tell you if Verizon is tracking your Web browsing.


Verizon informs me that it could take up to a week for the updated privacy settings to take effect, so don’t be alarmed if the supercookie doesn’t crumble right away.

Should you be concerned if you use a different cellular carrier? In the United States at least, probably not. AT&T had been testing supercookies, but announced last year that it would phase them out; our tests have confirmed that. Other major carriers, such as Sprint and T-Mobile, have not been known to use supercookies. And given the bad publicity that they’ve garnered for Verizon Wireless, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them tossed in the compost soon.

 

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Comments about How to Say “No Thanks” to Verizon’s Supercookie
(Comments are closed.)

SteveD  2015-04-02 16:06
Went to the Verizon site, followed the instructions, but my phone (via amibeingtracked.com) reports that I am still being tracked. About a 10 minute wait from disabling to test -- allow more time for effect?
Josh Centers  2015-04-02 16:13
I would give it a bit more time and see if the status changes. Let me know either way!
Josh Centers  2015-04-03 15:38
Hi Steve, Verizon informs me that it could take up to a week for the settings to take effect. I've updated the article to reflect this.
I am having the same experience. I opted out of everything they had me signed up for on the page from my account. It has been nine (9) hours and I still get the "Bummer" that I am still being tracked by Cellco Partnership.
Josh Centers  2015-04-02 22:45
That's disturbing. I'll ask around and see what I can find out.
Steve Nicholson  2015-04-04 02:57
I went in to the settings at least a year ago and turned everything off. According to amibeingtracked I am not being tracked. Not by Verizon anyway. They didn't say anything about any government agencies.

And if you want a true supercookie, read this: http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2013/12/the-food-lab-the-best-chocolate-chip-cookies.html
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2015-04-04 11:18
The Verizon Wireless link in one of the step 1's is to amibeingtracked, not Verizon.

My cel phone is billed to my employer, not me, and I don't have a Manage Privacy Settings link in the left-hand sidebar. There is a link with that text if I click View Profile but there are no form input options there. Fortunately, if I go to amibeingtracked.com from my work phone, it says I'm not being tracked.
Josh Centers  2015-04-04 13:42
Thanks, that's fixed now. What happens if you call the number?
Mac Carter  2015-04-07 01:19
I went to the My Verizon site and could not find the page you mention to opt out of Mobile Advertising. I searched all over the Verizon site. There is no "Manage Privacy Settings" in the left-hand sidebar as you describe. Even a general search on the site produced nothing. Very frustrating.
Richad Sampson  2015-04-07 06:11
I logged in and I also do not se a privacy settings available on My Verizon web site.
Josh Centers  2015-04-07 11:00
Hi Mac, do you get your service through your employer, by any chance?
Nancy Howard  2015-04-07 12:56
When I logged into my account on verizon, I got a notice that they had just re-designed their website. I typed "Manage Privacy settings" into the search bar on the upper right, and was directed to the area. They may have changed the website so it isn't easy to find!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-07 15:45
Taking a page from Facebook! :-)
Josh Centers  2015-04-07 16:38
Interesting. The layout of verizonwireless.com is the same for me now as it was when we published the article.
Andrew Eisen  2015-04-07 07:46
I tuned off all the Verizon tracking last night and this morning I went to amibeingtracked.com only to find that, "You're being tracked by X-UIDH". "We've found out that Cellco Partnership DBA Verizon Wireless is tracking you."

I think that this may be a matter we each need to bring to our congressmen. Clearly Verizon is not eliminating the tracking even as their website is reporting to me that I have opted out and that these 'services' have been turned off.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-04-07 08:53
Remember, they claim it may take up to a week for your change to take effect. It's pretty clear that it's not taking effect immediately from conversations we've had with other readers.

(I've never quite understood why, in this modern age, things like this take this long. Surely it's just a database entry somewhere - how long can that take to propagate?)
Caitlyn Antrim  2015-04-07 09:01
I am unclear as to whether the 'super cookie'/CPNI applies only to mobile devices or to verizon internet services (e.g. FIOS) in general.

If I have FIOS but use a non-verizon mobile phone carriers the CPNI applied to my inter nation communications?
Josh Centers  2015-04-07 10:59
Verizon FIOS settings shouldn't affect a non-Verizon mobile phone.
Ken Laskey  2015-04-07 22:37
As will happen with Verizon, the option you want may not be obviously available. (I have had confused customer service people who couldn't find wha they knew existed the week before.) In any case, the simple instructions in the article didn't work but I somehow got to the privacy page and was able to make my selections. Sorry, but I lost track of the trail I took. In any case, it is there, so keep looking.
Josh Centers  2015-04-08 15:39
If you can't find the setting on the Web, I would recommend trying the automated number.