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AT&T Stops Adding Tracking Codes To Web Requests Made By Its Users

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

AT&T Mobility, America’s second largest mobile carrier, has decided to do away with the controversial practice of adding tracking codes to the browsing data transmitted by its users. The use of such tracking codes, also dubbed as super cookies, was first reported by Wired and Forbes magazines in October and led to massive outcry among AT&T’s and Verizon’s subscriber base since they could be used by the carriers or advertisers to create profiles based on the browsing history.

Before AT&T decided to phase away the use of tracking codes, web requests made by its users through mobile devices were appended by a string of random numbers and letters. The tracking IDs generated in this way were totally unique and were passed along with the requests to the destination websites. Although the tracking codes did not include any personal information, they provided a significant data mining opportunity to website owners and advertisers. What’s more, the codes were totally undetectable and could not be deleted by the usual methods that are used to clear web history so the users often had no idea that AT&T is adding tracking information to their online activities.

The use of undetectable tracking codes is the latest technique used by the mobile service providers to track users and their devices. Apart from AT&T, Verizon is another mobile service provider that adds invisible tracking codes to the web requests made by the Smartphone users. And while both AT&T and Verizon claim that subscribers have the option of opting out of such type of tracking practices, Wired and Forbes discovered that these providers were adding tracking codes even for users who had opted out of tracking. And in yet another shocking revelation, independent website ProPublica disclosed that Twitter was using the tracking codes generated by Verizon to serve advertisements to its users. This clearly shows that mobile service providers do not honor the privacy requests made by the users and supply vital data to advertisers.

While AT&T has decided to stop the tracking practice, Verizon is in no hurry to follow suit. The mobile service provider, which launched its tracking and profiling technology about two years ago, adds a Unique Identifier Header (UIDH) to all web requests thus allowing the company to link website visits to subscribers. When the news about AT&T’s decision became public, Verizon stated that they are not dropping the practice but as with any other program, they are constantly evaluating and tweaking it. The company also added that since it frequently changes identifiers used for tracking, it is almost impossible for advertisers and websites to create profiles that could be tied down to specific users.

Ever since Snowden revealed details about American surveillance programs, there have been calls for more transparency and a total revamp of the data collection practices of ISPs and mobile service providers. Thus, it can be said that AT&T’s decision to stop addition of tracking cookies to web requests represents a small but significant victory not only for its subscribers but also for privacy advocates.

January 27, 2015

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