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Anti-privacy award for most monitoring across the web goes to U.S. wireless carriers

Ms. Smith | Aug. 19, 2015
Americans are tracked across the web by their wireless carriers' 'supercookies' more than any other carrier in any other country.

online tracking

Wireless carriers worldwide are still tracking users via "supercookies" or "perma-cookies," yet Americans are tracked by U.S. wireless carriers more than any other carrier in any other country, according to a new report by the digital rights group Access. "Injecting tracking headers out of the control of users, without their informed consent, may abuse the privileged position that telcos occupy." Those tracking headers "leak private information about users and make them vulnerable to criminal attacks or even government surveillance."

It came to light in 2014 that Verizon Wireless and AT&T were injecting special tracking headers, aka "supercookies," to secretly monitor users' web browsing habits. So Access setup the "Am I being tracked?" website for users to find out if their mobile carriers were tracking the websites they visited on their phone. More than 200,000 people from 164 different countries tried out the Amibeingtracked tool; 15.3 percent were being tracked by tracking headers deployed by their wireless carriers. Of those, the most monitoring occurred in the U.S.

Most people don't bother to read their wireless carrier's End User License Agreement, but Access explained, "You may not realize that when you check a box on the application form you may be enrolling in an invasive tracking program that you cannot control — one that could potentially expose you to surveillance by governments or exploitation by criminals."

Headers are not evil, as they are needed for you to use the Internet, but tracking headers are different and very unfriendly to privacy. There's nothing you can do to stop such tracking as carriers exert their control by injecting tracking headers.

Access researchers included helpful graphics to explain tracking headers:

How users are monitored with tracking headers 
Click the image to enlarge. Credit: Access

How websites use wireless carriers tracking header
Click the image to enlarge. Credit:
 Access

In "The Rise of Mobile Tracking Headers: How Telcos Around the World Are Threatening Your Privacy" (pdf), Access researchers wrote: 

Thus far, carriers have in general not been transparent or demonstrated accountability with regard to their use of tracking headers. In addition, government investigation of the practice has been inadequate to date. The public policy implications of this practice demand greater attention. The tracking activity revealed in this report takes place within a context of massively increased government surveillance capabilities that span the globe. International human rights experts have extolled anonymity as an important facilitator of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online, yet users who wish to express themselves and receive and impart information without revealing their identity can face extreme difficulty. Intelligence agencies, malicious users, and other actors can exploit this power imbalance to unlawfully collect personal data, build profiles, and monitor marginalized communities.

 

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