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Use of ‘supercookies’ to keep track of Internet customer is intolerable

Verizon Wireless’ use of a powerful type of code to track its customers around the Internet is a chilling example of our diminishing privacy.

The Federal Communications Commission has fined Verizon Wireless $1.35 million for using something called “supercookies” to track its customers. Those bits of data are nearly impossible to disable and could allow almost anyone to follow users around the Web.

The fine was entirely justified, and the government needs to continue cracking down on companies that invade people’s privacy for the sake of making yet another dollar.

George Orwell could not have imagined the extent of such breaches of privacy. We cannot imagine a world without the Internet and its easy access to information. But users are also producing large amounts of data, and companies are eager to access it. Sometimes too eager.

According to a Washington Post story published in The News, Verizon placed a unique string of characters into customers’ Web browsing in 2012 to help the company better target its advertising. Thanks to privacy advocates, who dubbed the code a supercookie because of the near impossibility of deleting it, the public discovered what was going on in 2014. The visceral reaction to the unauthorized monitoring was justified.

Most people understand these days that, when logging onto social media or other popular sites, their actions are being analyzed, and not just by their “friends.” Most companies offer users ways to protect themselves from surveillance, such as by changing privacy settings.

But the liberty taken by Verizon Wireless in employing a technique that privacy experts warn could be exploited by other companies or even intelligence agencies is breathtaking. Company assurances that the code “wouldn’t be used for that” ring hollow.

Researcher Jonathan Mayer revealed last January that he had evidence that “others could hijack the supercookie for their own purposes.” And, according to the Post, an online advertising company called Turn was using the codes to help follow people around online. Turn used the supercookie to “respawn” its traditional cookies, helpful when users tried removing the cookies.

There is nothing wrong with companies attempting to attract new customers and retain old ones, until that effort involves covertly spying on them.