AT&T fell victim to some of the harshest criticisms any service provider had felt in the mobile space recently after the company suddenly halted the use of what are known as permacookies. Most people know and understand what a cookie is, within a web browser, but a permacookie functions a little differently and is far more invasive.
The truth is that companies like AT&T and Verizon have been using permacookies for quite some time, in an effort to better determine what their users are searching on their devices. The benefit for companies like Verizon and AT&T is the addition of ad revenue that would be seen from selling that valuable information.
The valuable information that AT&T was collecting through these permacookies was essentially everything you do within a browser while connected to their network. Meaning, sites you frequented, search engine results, search engine queries, etc. all were compiled and ultimately in the hands of the companies employing them. What makes them different from an ordinary browser cookie is their unique identifier that makes them exclusive to the specific service provider that is utilizing them. In fact, it’s the employment of these permacookies that make an advertising platform even possible with service providers due to the limitations they have on what people are doing with their devices.
For the consumer, the negatives were expansive. The inability to delete these cookies, and the late-blooming opportunity to opt-out of these permacookie collections was something that was widely-debated. And even worse, the fact that many companies who utilize similar tools, will only give their customers the opportunity to opt out of sharing of the data, rather than collection of the data in the first place. Combine that with the already known fact that users cannot delete permacookies, and what you’re left with is a privacy and security mess on the plates of the consumer. Some suggested using Wi-Fi when possible to avoid being on the providers network, but at the end of the day, users cannot be on Wi-Fi all the time.
AT&T may have halted collection of this data, and the subsequent use of permacookies and many were happy with that. But, a spokeswoman for AT&T pointed out that moving forward, even though the permacookies were disabled, a system similar to this one – or this exact system – could be reenacted to collect user data. At that point, it would almost create a scenario where users would not be able to avoid the collection, and maybe only be able to temporarily stop the sharing of that collected data in the future.
This though, is the age we live in. Where information is regularly shared, and the companies that maintain the platforms we use are encouraged by significant revenue boosts to collect and use that data to better understand their customers – and improve their bottom line. Users can opt out, but at the end of the day, opting out will only get the consumer so far before the reach of the service provider is simply too great.