Jonathan Mayer ’09, a leading online privacy advocate and proponent of the “do not track” initiative, made headlines again last week after he uncovered a digital advertiser’s use of tracking cookies that are difficult to delete.
As Mayer explained on his blog, Web Policy, he was looking for companies that were taking advantage of data from Verizon’scontroversial advertising header, released last year. He found that one Verizon partner, Turn, was using Verizon data to generate cookies that kept coming back, even if a user followed the recommended opt-out mechanisms. The investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica also reported on Turn’s tracking tricks, after confirming the tests outlined in Mayer’s blog. The advertising company announced that it would suspend using the regenerated tracking cookies, also known as “zombie cookies.”
The New York Times, in a Jan. 26 story, reported that Verizon had not been notified of Turn’s specific use of the telecommunications company’s customer codes. But that, Mayer, explained, is at the heart of the issue. “Verizon is not in a position to control how others use its header,” he told the Times. “There’s no doubt that this particular approach does introduce new privacy problems.”
Mayer, a lawyer and computer science graduate student at Stanford, was featured in PAW’s Jan. 8, 2014, issue. His work on privacy began at Princeton, where the Woodrow Wilson School major explored internet anonymity and digital fingerprinting in his senior thesis, a paper that later caught the attention of experts at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Sometimes academia feels like you are writing into a great abyss,” Mayer told PAW contributor Nicole Perlroth ’04. “That was my realization that you can have a big impact.”