Google accused of tracking Apple's Safari usage

February 17, 2012 7:28:30 PM PST
Mountain View-based Google is scrambling to undo tracking it used to collect information from potentially millions of iPhones, iPads and Mac users. It is a complex privacy issue.

Google and many other web-based services routinely track you so they can deliver ads that are tailored to your interests, but this time, Google got in and set cookies contrary to Safari's default setting. A Stanford grad student made the discoverey and it was independently verified by the Wall Street Journal.

It is a given that ads shows up when you are on the internet. It is the price we pay for free content. But Google took advantage of users of the Apple's Safari browser used by millions of people on the iPhone, iPad and Mac. It sent out a cookie to see if a user was logged into a Google site. If so, it set a cookie to customize the kinds of ads that appear.

In a statement, Google said, "The information passing between the user's Safari browser and Google's servers was anonymous." However, "The Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set."

That happened, even though safari's privacy setting is set by default to block third-party cookies. Cookies are kept in your browser to help create a profile of your search history and preferences to tailor what kinds of ads you see. Third-party cookies are needed for social media sites to share your likes with others, but what Google did scares some consumers. "I do my banking online. I do all my bill-paying online. Do they have access to that? Will other people have access to that? It's just an uncertainty that I don't feel comfortable with," hardware developer Russell Ramelb told ABC7.

Google says, "We have now started removing these cookies from safari browsers."

CNET.com Editor-At-Large Rafe Needleman remains skeptical that privacy breaches are history. "Can you trust Google not to make a similar mistake in the future? I don't think that's a very safe bet," he said. Needleman points out that Google has a built-in conflict. On one side, it tries to gather data anonymously. "On the other hand, you have the advertising group which, the more targeted the ads can get, the more money they can make. That's Facebook's model after all. So, there is a natural push and pull here, and this issue is far, far from over," he said.

Keep in mind that this privacy issue only involves Apple's Safari browser, but also keep in mind that the popular iPhone uses Safari. Click here to check or change your cookie settings on Google.


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