November 17, 2014
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other Internet industry observers allege that Verizon has been using a special version of Internet “cookies” to monitor consumer Internet use. These special cookies are believed to be significantly more intrusive than traditional cookies. If these claims are accurate, then Verizon has been aggressively spying on consumer Internet activities for a period of years.
Cookies are segments of computer code. When introduced into a computer, they can retain information regarding activities conducted by the computer, including Internet use. Cookies also make that retained information accessible to Internet servers contacted by the computer. Cookies are now widely and routinely used to gather information about consumer Internet use. They are viewed by many to be a significant threat to the online privacy of individual Internet users.
Current web browsers provide individuals with the ability to limit the reach of cookies. Browsers enable computer users to block and delete traditional cookies. By exercising some control over cookies, Internet users are able to place limits on the intrusive aspects of cookie use.
The EFF claims, however, that Verizon is now using a new version of cookies. These “stealth” cookies are reportedly far more difficult for consumers to identify and to remove. Current web browsers are allegedly unable to delete these stealth cookies.
It has been reported that the EFF has filed a complaint against Verizon at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In that complaint, the EFF claims that Verizon’s use of the stealth cookies violates the FCC’s rules, and the EFF asks the FCC to order Verizon to cease use of the new cookies.
The EFF and others contend that Verizon has been using the new cookies to track consumer online behavior for approximately two years. They also allege that AT&T is currently conducting trials using its own version of the stealth cookies. The EFF has indicated that it is considering taking additional legal action against Verizon in an effort to stop stealth cookie use.
If these claims are accurate, then this new, stealth version of Internet cookies poses an important threat to online privacy and consumer protection. The current framework of online consumer protection relies substantially on effective disclosure of all information gathering operations. The oversight also relies on the availability of meaningful methods, within the control of consumers, to block and delete cookies that are monitoring their online activities.
If the stealth cookies reportedly in use by Verizon and in development by AT&T are able to evade detection and are beyond the blocking and deletion capability of current browsers, then the FCC and other oversight authorities should restrict their use. Cookies that are, in effect, beyond the reach of current browsers undermine the integrity of the existing online consumer protection framework. Stealth cookies pose an unreasonable threat to privacy and consumer rights, and their use should be prohibited.