Third of U.S. Now Targetable On/Offline With Verizon, AOL ‘Supercookie’

Crumbled CookieMarketers can now target 135 million Verizon customers on and offline, with mobile phone data linked to AOL ads, according to ProPublica.

Dubbed the ‘supercookie,’ the way Verizon tracks its users’ behavior is “enabled by default” on phones, according to an article published Thursday in Marketing Land that interpreted ProPublica’s reporting.

“The practical impact of this Verizon-AOL data transfer will be the ability to match online and offline user behavior for what is probably unprecedented Facebook-like ad targeting and analytics capabilities,” Marketing Land writes. “App usage behavior is apparently also part of the tracking. Other carriers, such as AT&T and Vodafone, have reportedly also experimented with similar supercookie tracking for mobile ad targeting.”

ProPublica’s reporting is a bit more detailed.

“AOL’s ad network will be able to match millions of Internet users to their real-world details gathered by Verizon, including — ‘your gender, age range and interests,’ ” according to ProPublica. “AOL’s network is on 40 percent of websites, including on ProPublica. AOL will also be able to use data from Verizon’s identifier to track the apps that mobile users open, what sites they visit, and for how long.”

Verizon’s announcement about this program is written as though it’s speaking to its customers.

“The Relevant Mobile Advertising program uses your postal and email addresses, certain information about your Verizon products and services (such as device type), and information we obtain from other companies (such as gender, age range, and interests),” reads the notice. “The separate Verizon Selects program uses this same information, plus additional information about your use of Verizon services including: mobile Web browsing, app and feature usage and location of your device. The AOL Advertising Network uses information collected when you use AOL services and visit third-party websites where AOL provides advertising services (such as Web browsing, app usage and location), as well as information that AOL obtains from third-party partners and advertisers.”

Verizon says this way, marketers can provide Verizon customers with more relevant, targeted ads via AOL. However, public outcry about the supercookie caused Verizon to offer a way to opt out of the tracking in early 2015, according to Marketing Land. Article author Greg Sterling opines that Verizon needs to move quickly to educate consumers about this development and make opt-out possibilities very clear.

“The ‘we know what’s best for consumers’ paternalism that’s been a cultural element of the digital ad industry is one of the factors behind the rise of ad blocking,” Sterling says. “Consumers simply don’t trust most brands, marketers or their service providers.”

Should marketers using the AOL ads also educate consumers about the new targeting options, or just Verizon? Or should there be transparency?

Please respond in the comments section below.

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Heather Fletcher is a freelance reporter for Adweek. She covers performance and direct marketing.