News breaking from the Wall Street Journal today revealed that internet search giant Google has been secretly tracking smartphone and desktop users of Apple’s Safari internet browser.(1) This tracking was accomplished by a small piece of code, one that tricks the browser into allowing third-party tracking cookies that Safari normally blocks by default. As a result of the Google “workaround,” a number of other advertising companies have also used this method to track users, including Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC’s Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.’s PointRoll Inc.(2)
In a statement to media earlier today, Google responded with the following;
“Unlike other major browsers, Apple’s Safari browser blocks third-party cookies by default. However, Safari enables many web features for its users that rely on third parties and third-party cookies, such as [Facebook’s] ‘Like’ buttons.
“Last year, we began using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on Safari who had opted to see personalised ads and other content – such as the ability to ‘+1’ [the equivalent of Facebook’s ‘Like’ for Google’s new Google+ social network] things that interest them.
“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 personalisation.
“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 [by other advertising companies using the DoubleClick network]. We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers. It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”
“Users of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome were not affected. Nor were users of any browser (including Safari) who have opted out of our interest-based advertising program using Google’s Ads Preferences Manager.”(3)
[SOAPBOX=ON] This has got to be the one of the most troublesome news items to ever hit the internet in the past year. Google, the same company that will soon be compiling and integrating its accounts and privacy policies from the many Google-held internet websites, such as You Tube and Google +(4), the same Google that just received the go-ahead to buy smartphone manufacturer Motorola Mobility(5), just got caught doing something that users thought that it could not do, and by buying Apple and using Safari, implicitly did not want it to do.
The implications of this are far-reaching. If Google is capable of engaging in shady shenanigans such as this, how many other such shenanigans are they really currently pulling? Think about it. How many of us have our browsers set to use the Google search engine by default? How many of us have Google’s toolbar? (I was one of these users until recently, electing to strip away as many added extras as I could, just in case something like this actually happened!) How many users have Google’s Chrome browser installed? How many of us enjoy the feature-packed offerings of “Google Earth” and “Picasa”? How many of us have recently climbed on the Google + bandwagon?
At this point, one has to ask themselves if they are ready to surrender what remains of their internet anonymity. Ladies and gentlemen, since its inception in 1998, Google has become almost “God-like” in its omni-presence on the internet. With the purchase of Motorola’s Mobility business, it has more firmly leveraged itself in the mobile / cloud computing arena as well. I would encourage each and every one of you to ask this question of your state and federal representatives and senators; what is Google’s real gameplan, and where is the accountability?