Google Gouging User Privacy

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2012-02-18 Print this article Print


Google's reasons for exploiting the loophole are tied to its new +1 button, essentially the answer to Facebook's ubiquitous Like button. Google wanted to add the +1 button in its DoubleClick display ads across the Web. However, because Safari blocks such third-party tracking by default, Google couldn't use its typical cookie file approach to divine whether or not Safari users were using Google.

Safari has a loophole in its privacy settings that allows tracking for Websites with which a user has previously interacted, such as a Web form or online ad. Google tweaked the code in its ads to trick Safari into thinking that a user was submitting a form to Google.

This enabled Google to install cookies on iPhones, iPads and Macs, tracking those users' browsing activities for 12 to 24 hours per cookie. The interesting detail is that once Safari accepts cookies from one company, such as Google, that company can install multiple cookies on users' machines for extensive tracking.

For its part, Google said it merely leveraged existing Safari functionality to enable the +1 button to work for signed-in Google+ users on Safari. Google created a temporary link between its servers and Safari browsers to see whether Safari users were also signed into Google.

"However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser," said Rachel Whetstone, Google's senior vice president of communications and public policy. "We didn't anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."

Apple is taking no chances, and is working to stop the enablement of such cookies. The Journal meanwhile explained how users can opt out of the cookie tracking.

Google's latest gambit with Safari opens a potentially damaging avenue for the company, which is already being investigated by the FTC for potential antitrust concerns related to its search and advertising business practices.

It also will inject some new bad blood in Google's growing competition with Apple, with whom the search engine has had an increasingly contentious relationship since it launched Android and began competing with Apple in the mobile computing market.


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