Why Google Bypassed Safari’s Privacy Settings

Inplace #2

ADOTAS – In a report earlier today, the Wall Street Journal accused Google of tracking the web browsing habits of mobile users without their permission. Using a code trick, Google found its way around the default privacy settings on Safari, the most commonly used browser for mobile devices, in order to allow third-party cookies, which by default Safari doesn’t do for mobile. According to the WSJ, the search behemoth disabled the code after being contacted by the newspaper. Researchers had found the same code in ads from not just Google, but also Vibrant Media, WPP’s Media Innovation Group and Gannett’s PointRoll.

The twentieth paragraph of the finger-wagging, grandma-scaring WSJ piece reveals the reason why Google had put in the effort to find a way around Safari’s default settings: It wanted the “+1” buttons — the Google+ version of Facebook’s “like” buttons — to appear in mobile ads in Safari, which they couldn’t do without using a third-party cookie to verify the user was signed into a Google account and thus in any kind of position to “+1” anything. While Google certainly bungled this one from a PR perspective by apparently sneaking around in Safari without announcing its motions, it wasn’t actually tracking phones, as the WSJ and other publications have phrased it — Google was tracking a much more general kind of browsing behavior. It’s arguable that logging into a Google account is a tacit opt-in, one that counteracts Safari’s default opt-out, but the catch is, typical web users don’t fully understand what that means, and Google was less than transparent about how logging into a Google account bypassed one of the browser’s security settings.

In response, Google issued a statement, which read, “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.” In the meantime, the Journal’s hosting a poll alongside its piece, prompting readers to “Vote: How much does it bother you?” “Gimme a break” was not offered as a response.