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Marketers? scrutiny seen rising amid reports of Verizon, AT&T tracking

Marketers? support of hyper-local and mobile device tracking means they must take greater responsibility for their actions as the telecommunications giants? codes make mobile phone users easier to track on the Web, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Washington Post. The telecoms? reported tracking moves thrust new light on privacy, a major issue in mobile marketing since the beginning.

?Mobile marketers will find themselves the subject of growing scrutiny from privacy advocates and regulators,? said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of Center for Digital Democracy. "They must take greater responsibility for their support of hyper-local and mobile device tracking that increasingly threatens consumer privacy"

Criticizing supercookies
Verizon and AT&T have reportedly been tracking the Internet activity of more than 100 million cellular customers with what experts call ?supercookies?. Consumers are unable to remove the trackers or evade them by using browser settings, according to reports.

The technology lets the telecoms see which sites their customers visit, cataloging their tastes and interests. 

Word of supercookies alarms privacy advocates. 

Verizon and AT&T say they have taken steps to alert their customers to the tracking and to protect customer privacy as the companies develop programs to help advertisers hone their pitches based on individual Internet behavior, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Nevertheless, word of the supercookies has raised concern among privacy advocates.

The tracking could expose user Internet behavior to a wide range of outsiders ? including intelligence services ? and may also violate federal telecommunications and wiretapping laws.

?This is all about extending user tracking across all devices, especially mobile phones,? Mr. Chester said. ?Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and other broadband providers want to better monetize all the data they gather via providing triple-play connections through mobile phones, PCs and TVs. But they have over-reached by trying to out-Google Google and other leading data companies.   

?The FTC and FCC must immediately investigate Verizon and AT&T and force them to make any data collection opt-in, with additional safeguards for financial, health, racial, and youth sensitive data,? he said. ?When Verizon becomes an unaccountable ISP cum giant data broker, that's bad for Internet Freedom.?

Verizon Wireless has been silently modifying its users' Web traffic on its network to inject a cookie-like tracker, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This tracker, included in an HTTP header called X-UIDH, is sent to every unencrypted website a Verizon customer visits from a mobile device. 

It allows third-party advertisers and Web sites to assemble a deep, permanent profile of visitors' Web browsing habits without their consent.

Verizon created this mechanism to expand its advertising programs, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The header also raises concerns about what it allows others to find out about Verizon users. It functions even if one uses a private browsing mode or clears cookies. 

Users can test whether the header is injected in their traffic by visiting or over a cell data connection.

AT&T has admitted it is testing a new way of tracking its customers for ad display purposes.

?There?s nothing ready to announce,? AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel was quoted in the Post. ?We?re still testing.?

As a privacy-protection measure, AT&T said the unique code for each user will change every 24 hours, according to the Post.

The business models that will support mobile in the years ahead are unclear.
Advertisers are moving quickly to develop new advertising models that work within the contours of the mobile technology environment.

Two years ago, the six leading national advertising trade associations formed the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) and charged it with developing a self-regulatory program to provide users with education and choice regarding interest-based ads.

Since that time, the DAA program has become a staple in the desktop environment, establishing the rules of the road for participants and non-participants alike, and backing its principles with two independent enforcement mechanisms.

Key issue
In July this year, DAA issued binding guidance on how the DAA principles are to be applied on mobile platforms, and set in motion a process that will see the DAA program fully adapted to the mobile environment within the coming months.

Android tablet promotion. 

Data remains a key issue in the mobile marketing landscape.

?Indeed, one reason why phone and cable companies oppose Network Neutrality rules is that they want to become the country's data collectors in chief, reap the rewards from advertisers, and force competitors like Google and Facebook to share their data with them,? Mr. Chester said.

Final Take
Michael Barris is staff reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York.