Google Secretly Tracked Apple's Safari Users, WSJ Reports

Google Takes Heat Over Secret Tracking Revelation

A Wall Street Journal report published Friday revealed that Google, along with several other companies, covertly tracked the online moves of users of Apple's web browser Safari, in spite of the fact that the browser blocks such tracking by default.

To get around Safari's default blocking, Google exploited a loophole in the browser's privacy settings. While Safari does block most tracking, it makes an exception for websites with which a person interacts in some way—for instance, by filling out a form. So Google added coding to some of its ads that made Safari think that a person was submitting an invisible form to Google. Safari would then let Google install a cookie on the phone or computer.

(See a more detailed explanation from the Journal here, which includes several illustrations and charts. To learn more about cookies, check out Marketing Land's primer here).

Although, Google ceased its use of the code after the Wall Street Journal contacted the company about the practice, Google still claims that it did nothing wrong. In a statement, published in the Journal, Google said, "The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

Some tech industry pundits have questioned some of the conclusions drawn in the Journal article, and have specifically taken issue with the Journal's insinuation that Google's code amounted to "iPhone tracking," as the newspaper suggested in a headline.

"That suggests the location scandal that came up last year. In reality, Google’s not tracking phones. It’s tracking what some people might do within the Safari browser, both on the phone and on the desktop," wrote Danny Sullivan on Marketing Land.

Federated Media's John Batelle also argues that Apple's role in this matter should be considered.

"It’d be nice if the Journal wasn’t so caught up in its own 'privacy scoop' that it paused to wonder if perhaps Apple has an agenda here as well. I’m not arguing Google doesn’t have an agenda -- it clearly does," Batelle wrote.

He asks whether Safari's privacy protections are really about safeguarding the user, or helping Apple. "[P]erhaps it’s because Apple considers anyone using iOS, even if they’re browsing the web, as 'Apple’s customer,' and wants to throttle potential competitors, insuring that it’s impossible to access to 'Apple’s' audiences using iOS in any sophisticated fashion?"

In a post on his blog, TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler agrees with Batelle, saying, "Mobile Safari does have stricter privacy controls than other browsers, which is likely a very good thing for most users, but it also benefits Apple because it essentially destroys Google's business."

Siegler also suggests that Apple co-founder and former CEO, the late Steve Jobs would have "gone ballistic" over Google's sneaky move.

Privacy rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the tracking "probably an unintended side-effect" of Google's attempt to allow Google+ users to share information from web pages on Google+. However, the EFF also says that after the outrage caused by the potential changes in Google's privacy policy, this latest embarrassment is "bad news" for the company and signals that it's time for Google to get proactive about user privacy.

"It’s time for Google to acknowledge that it can do a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users," noted the EFF. " Specifically, it’s time that Google's third-party web servers start respecting Do Not Track requests, and time for Google to offer a built-in Do Not Track option."

Similar to the popular Do Not Call registry which allows people to opt-out of telemarketing calls, Do Not Track is a policy proposal that would allow people to "opt out of tracking by websites they do not visit, including analytics services, advertising networks, and social platforms." The Do Not Track website is maintained by Jonathan Mayer, the Stanford University researcher who, according to the Journal, first discovered Google's hidden code.

Much of the coverage of this issue has focused on mobile-specific browsing, perhaps because of Safari's preeminence in that area. However, as Sullivan pointed out, Google's workaround affected any Safari browser, not just the mobile version. Sullivan writes, "In fact, I'm pretty perplexed about why the iPhone aspect is being played up so much. This seems far more likely to have impacted more people using Safari on the desktop."

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