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Editorial: Verizon Wireless crosses the privacy line on Web browsing

Verizon Wireless is making it possible for websites and advertising networks to build profiles of individual customers based on their browsing habits.
(Richard Drew / AP)

Verizon Wireless, the country’s most popular mobile phone operator, has been quietly inserting into its customers’ Web browsing sessions an identifier unique to each device they use, making it possible for websites and advertising networks to build profiles of individual customers based on their browsing habits. What’s worse, even if Verizon’s subscribers happen to find out about this and ask the company to stop, it won’t.

Rather than inviting the rest of the Internet to violate its customers’ privacy, Verizon should find a more respectful way to generate advertising dollars.

Ordinarily, Web-browsing apps reveal little about the people using them. The typical website tries to pierce the anonymity by planting a unique identifier called a cookie on each visitor’s computer or smartphone, storing information about what the visitor does while on that site. So do online advertising networks, which can use the cookies to track what individuals do on all the sites that carry their ads. If that’s a troubling prospect, you can set your browser to erase cookies or prevent them from being stored on your machine.

Verizon Wireless, however, has flipped the process on its head. It inserts a unique code into the information that each device transmits through Verizon’s wireless network as it browses the Web. The company then uses the code to sell demographic information (but not names or personal profiles) about that customer to advertisers so they can make their pitches more relevant to that person. Meanwhile, those sites and associated ad networks can collect and use the code to build a profile of a user even if he or she is blocking cookies.

Verizon says it changes the codes regularly to guard against permanent profiles, but that’s not much of a concession to its customers’ privacy rights. To stop the company from selling information gleaned about them, its customers have to opt out of a program they didn’t sign up for in the first place. And even opting out doesn’t stop the company from inserting the identifier into their Web browsing.

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AT&T is exploring a similar technique, although it pledges to change the code daily and let users stop it from inserting the code at all. Verizon should do at least that much. Ideally, though, Verizon and other Internet providers wouldn’t plant identifiers in their customers’ data without their explicit consent in advance. If Verizon doesn’t see the problem with its actions here, the Federal Trade Commission should enlighten it.

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