Commentary

Verizon's 'Zombie Cookie' And The Future Of Audience Targeting

Verizon Wireless and Turn were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, but what does the incident tell us about the future of tracking? 

In short: Turn uses a tracking technology from Verizon Wireless known as a Unique Identifier Header (UIDH), now notoriously known as a “zombie cookie.” The UIDH allows consumers to be tracked even after their cookies have been deleted. Stanford’s Jonathan Mayer first reported the story.

MediaPost’s Wendy Davis has already covered the story at length, noting that “the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation is urging Verizon Wireless to abandon [the] tracking technology that enables ad networks to collect data and send targeted ads to mobile users -- even when they try to avoid tracking by shedding their cookies.”

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Turn, for its part, isn’t denying its use of Verizon’s UIDH. Max Ochoa, general counsel, chief privacy officer and corporate secretary at Turn, wrote in a blog post that the company “always use[s] the most stable identifier available to inform our bidding and campaign execution.” In this case, it was Verizon’s UIDH.

On the one hand, Turn’s approach makes sense -- it uses what it deems to be most reliable -- but on the other hand, it’s a clear moral gray area, oxymorons notwithstanding. In fact, Mayer believes “a consumer deception claim would succeed against Turn.”

Clearing cookies is not a reliable way for a user to express their desire not to receive tailored advertising,” wrote Ochoa, a statement that may pass in court (note: I have no legal background, but I have seen My Cousin Vinny) but reads more as opinion guised as fact. Marketers must both give and take with their consumers. They cannot "take" and hide the "give."

But forgetting Verizon Wireless, Turn, zombie cookies and maybe even real zombies, what does all of this mean from the macro level?

With consumers spreading across a myriad of devices, marketers are trying to keep pace. As a result, cookie-less targeting is on the rise, as is probabilistic audience modeling (which, as the name suggests, does not rely on personally identifiable information.)

An RTB Insider from earlier this week noted that the cookie has become less important, but added that the “post-cookie world isn’t post-apocalyptic. Instead, it’s downright positive.”

Marketers are looking for new ways to more accurately target consumers in a privacy-friendly manner. The use of Verizon’s UIDH certainly appears to have blurred the line between “more accurately” and “privacy-friendly,” but the fact it was used at all should not come as a surprise.

However, marketers and ad tech companies shouldn’t be sloppy today -- it’s laying the groundwork for the future of audience targeting.

"Zombie" image via Shutterstock.

1 comment about "Verizon's 'Zombie Cookie' And The Future Of Audience Targeting".
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  1. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, January 16, 2015 at 12:19 p.m.

    A viable reason why the FCC needs to have some regulatory oversight on broadband.....handcuffed to a zombie super cookie is not privacy friendly.

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