My appearance on Al Jazeera

Verizon and AT&T are tracking your every move and there’s nothing you can do about it

Verizon and AT&T are using a new-fangled technology to track your every move and yesterday, Al Jazeera invited me to talk about it on their Morning News.

The segment is only 4 minutes long and covers the basics so I figured I’d write about it from 3 different angles in order to give you a more complete picture.

Here goes.

The Technology Angle

The technology is quite fascinating actually. 

tcp_ip_stack 2Most cookies operate at the Application layer of the Internet Protocol (IP) stack. Let me ‘splain.

IP is a kind of language our computers use to talk to each other.  If you look to the right you’ll see the IP stack graphic.

What’s missing from that graphic is the 5th floor User layer which is above the Application layer.

And that’s just a geeky way of saying that a cookie which remembers your password so you don’t have to type it in again (to list just one of many uses for cookies) lives at the Application layer.  And since User and Application layers are touching one another, you interface most directly and have the greatest degree of control over settings which “live” at the Application layer.

Which is why you’re able to -for example- delete cookies from the app, or switch to incognito mode, or use a TOR browser to surf the Internet anonymously.  These are all examples of Application level programs.

However, when the cookie is deeper inside the stack (at the Network/IP layer), it becomes a whole other matter altogether.  The User layer is two floors away and interacting over such a distance becomes impossible for everyday users.

Switching to a different browser, going incognito, or even using a TOR browser doesn’t prevent Verizon from following you since those programs function at the Application layer and Verizon has embedded their cookie deeper in the stack.

tracking cookieIt’s like this Verizon’s supercookie has a tiny tracking device inside it. When you eat the cookie, the tracker gets lodged in your belly and it sits there constantly sending information to Verizon about everything you do and everywhere you go.

So far, over 100 million Verizon customers have eaten the cookie.

Verizon’s supercookie lives at the Network layer and it’s interfacing directly with your hardware. Which is why you can’t remove it. It’s hard-wired. It’s inside you.

This is why when you “opt-out” from Verizon’s tracking program, not even Verizon can stop the continuous stream of information emanating from your belly.

Now that I’ve throughly belabored the metaphor, let’s move to the second angle.  Privacy.

The Privacy Angle

Many have raised questions about Verizon’s ability to prevent crafty hackers (or crafty NSA agents) from accessing your information via this supercookie.

Verizon’s PR person has said that the technology is hack-proof, to which the security community has given a hardy chuckle.  If Verizon’s cookie is unhackable it would be the first technology ever created in the history of technology that is unhackable.

But that’s not where the privacy concerns end.

Even if you’re not a Verizon or AT&T customer, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. Jacob Hoffman-Andrews of Electronic Frontier Foundation had this to say:

Because the header is injected at the network level, Verizon can add it to anyone using their towers, even those who aren’t Verizon customers. Source.

That is some super scary stuff right there.

If only there was someone who could have predicted something like this happening. Oh wait, there is :-)

The Marketing Angle

All this technology was developed to track the lil ol’ me and you. Aren’t we special? :-)

And that’s not all. Verizon is swimming in some murky legal and ethical waters for our benefit just so they can serve us better ads. Aren’t they nice?

Here’s the thing.

The best, most benign use of this technology is to help Verizon partners serve us more relevant ads.  However, it should be pointed out that the best outcome of a more relevant ad is a bigger credit card bill at the end of the month.

Verizon’s inability to come up with a more clever way of monetizing their massive infrastructure and user base points to a terrible trend that’s been plaguing the business of business innovation for decades.

Take Google and Facebook as an example. Both are amazingly innovative technologies that have done zero in terms of business innovation.

Google and Facebook’s business model is exactly the same as the business model of any media company from 50, or even 100 years ago. Which is to say that they are all in the business of selling ads, just like Verizon is trying to be.

I do a pretty good rant on this subject in this video which is an excerpt from Charlie Poznek’s podcast.

It would seem that even tho the technology has evolved in the last 100 years by unimaginable leaps and bounds, our thinking about how to monetize eyeballs has remained unchanged.  And that’s pretty sad.

I wish I had a better note to finish on, but alas, I don’t. We’re basically screwed.  I mean, what are your options?

You can’t even vote with your wallet on this one.  Switching to another telecom provider won’t help. If we let Verizon and AT&T get away with this, every other telecom provider will follow suit.

Our only hope is to bring greater attention to this issue, which you can do by sharing this article (thank you very much).

If you’d like to learn more:

Verizon Injecting Perma-Cookies to Track Mobile Customers, Bypassing Privacy Controls

Corporate and government subscribers are excluded from the new marketing solution

Verizon’s Limited opt-out

Supercookie may be a violation of the federal law

Verizon, AT&T tracking their users with ‘supercookies’

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Founder @Triberr | Refugee from Bosnia | Professional speaker with a real job | Lousy Mixed Martial Artist | Singer/Songwriter | Global Force for Badassery.
 
3 comments
EssayPapers
EssayPapers

Thank you for enlightening us with this post. I totally agree with you that if we let them go away with this other telecoms will follow suit. This will jeopardize our safety and security.

coach2coachguy
coach2coachguy

Hack proof, if only!


You laid out an awfully predictable and incredibly scary scenario!  And just like you pointed, what viable alternatives, do we really have!


On the one hand, we certainly applaud most technological advancements! But in the very next breath, we cringe and the possibility of losing all of (what little) real privacy that we may have left!

Churchill
Churchill

I head to polish up a bit on my TCP/IP stack knowledge, but all is clear now. :-) Losing control is a scary thing. I am sure I am not the only one who wants to be sure they can decide when to enable or disable cookies. A tracker lodged in my belly is bound to cause indigestion or something worse. I totally agree with you that whatever man has created can be hacked. It's just a matter of when. Thanks for keeping us informed.