Red face for Google as it bypasses Apple's Safari privacy settings
A major embarrassment for Google today as the Wall Street Journal reveals that the search giant and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple's Safari Web browser.
Safari 'settings bypassed'
People using Safari on their iPhones and computers who intended monitoring to be blocked have instead been tracked, says the Journal.
Google and the other companies used special computer code that tricks Apple's Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users, says the WSJ.
Safari, the most widely used browser on mobile devices, is unlike other browsers designed to block such tracking by default.
Google disabled its code after being contacted by The Journal, says the report.
The Google code was spotted by Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford researcher . Ashkan Soltani, a technical adviser to the Journal, independently confirmed, that ads on 22 of the top 100 websites installed the Google tracking code on a test computer. Ads on 23 sites installed it on an iPhone browser.
The Journal said," The technique reaches far beyond those websites, however, because once the coding was activated, it could enable Google tracking across the vast majority of websites."
The cookie that Google installed on the computer or iPhone was temporary; it expired in 12 to 24 hours. But, said the WSJ, " It could sometimes result in extensive tracking of Safari users."
Soltani surveyed the top 100 most popular websites as ranked by Quantcast this month. "He found Google placed the code within ads displayed on major sites including movie site Fandango.com, dating site Match.com, AOL.com, TMZ.com and UrbanDictionary.com, among others," said the WSJ. " These companies either declined to comment or didn't respond. "
Three other online-ad companies were found using similar techniques: Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC's Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.'s PointRoll Inc, said the WSJ.
Until recently, one Google site told Safari users they could rely on Safari's privacy settings to prevent Google tracking them. Google removed that language from the site Tuesday night.
In a statement, 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."
Google's privacy practices are under intense scrutiny, according to the WSJ. Last year, in a legal settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission the company pledged not to "misrepresent" its privacy practices to consumers. The fine for violating the agreement is $16,000 per violation, per day.
The FTC declined to comment on the WSJ findings, said the paper.
An Apple official said: "We are working to put a stop to the circumvention of Safari privacy settings."