WSJ: Google disregarded iPhone privacy settings

Google planted cookies on millions of iPhones despite settings in place from Apple

The Wall Street Journal has charged that Google, along with a number of other advertising agencies, have planted code on millions of iPhones that allows the companies to track user behavior.

Google has denied that the embedded code, or cookies, tracks users, and said that it is only activated when users opt-in to one of Google's services, such as Gmail. But the company also admitted that the code inadvertently allowed additional Google Web advertising cookies to be installed on users' phones, against users' wishes.

By default, Safari blocks tracking behavior though the browser. But Google's code "tricks" Apple's Safari browser into monitoring user behavior, the WSJ charged.

"The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why," according to a statement from Rachel Whetstone, Google senior vice president for communications and public policy. "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."

Stanford University researcher Jonathan Mayer first discovered the code. A technical advisor to the WSJ, following Mayer's instruction, documented that the Google tracking code was installed on iPhones by 23 of the top 100 Web sites. The code was installed on ads from sites such as Fandango.com, Match.com, AOL.com, TMZ.com and UrbanDictionary.com. Once installed, Google then could track user movement across a wide number of Web sites, the WSJ charged.

In addition to Google, at least three other online advertising companies also circumnavigated Safari privacy settings with similar techniques, the WSJ found: Vibrant Media, WPP PLC's Media Innovation Group and Gannett Company's PointRoll.

Google offers instructions for users on how to opt-out of Safari tracking, though according to the WSJ, those instructions were removed from the Web site Tuesday, after the company was contacted by the WSJ on the matter.

Google argues that the cookies were necessary to provide users with personalized services, such as the ability to approve of content through Google's "+1" rating system.

"To enable these features, we created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google's servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for this type of personalization," Whetstone stated. "But we designed this so that the information passing between the user's Safari browser and Google's servers was anonymous--effectively creating a barrier between their personal information and the Web content they browse."

"However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser," Whetstone added. "We didn't anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."

The news comes at a sensitive time for Google. Last year, the company reached a legal settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about its privacy practices, and agreed not to misrepresent its privacy practices. Last month, Google consolidated its polices for all its sites into one privacy setting.

In a blog item posted Friday, Microsoft criticized Google for purposefully evading the Safari privacy settings, and offered its own browser as an alternative.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Joab Jackson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?