Google gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar

Are you shocked that Google is back in the news again for behaving badly? This latest "evil" is hard to excuse as being accidental. Several online advertising outfits, including Google, ignored the privacy settings of iPhone users and embedded tracking code in mobile advertisements, the Wall Street Journal finds. The code allowed Google and others to track browsing behavior across many different websites. Supposedly Google stopped the practice after being contacted by the Journal.

The browser breach raises important questions about the search and information giant's commitment to user privacy, and more importantly the lengths the company will go to build its advertising business. Considering that the Mountain View, Calif.-based company made such a big deal in its early years that "you can make money without doing evil", each successive report of Google acting just like any other company is ever more disturbing.

Independent researchers found that of the top 100 websites, 22 installed the tracking code on a desktop computer, while on 23 sites code was successfully installed on the iPhone. What makes this revelation even more surprising is the fact that Safari blocks such code by default. That means these advertising companies had to be pretty crafty in getting their code onto the iPhone.

As I said previously, Google was not the only ad company to track users through similar code: Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group, and PointRoll Inc. were all found to be using similar code.

All companies confirmed their use of the tracking code, except for Media Innovation Group, which declined to comment. In a statement, Google called the WSJ report a "mischaracterization" of its activities, stressing it did not collect any personal information as a result.

Microsoft took the opportunity provided by the disclosure of Google's tracking to slam the company. "This type of tracking by Google is not new", Internet Explorer senior director Ryan Gavin writes to The Windows Blog. "The novelty here is that Google apparently circumvented the privacy protections built into Apple’s Safari browser in a deliberate, and ultimately, successful fashion".

Of course Gavin recommends people use IE9, which he boasts as being "recognized as some of the strongest privacy protection in the industry".

Apple did not immediately respond to comment from BetaNews, but did say in response to the WSJ story that it is "working to put a stop" to developers from getting around Safari's privacy settings. Surely Apple itself shares some blame in this latest mess, then. For whatever reason, Safari's privacy settings are not strong enough.

Fixing these loopholes should be a priority for the company: if legitimate companies are able to get around Safari's privacy settings, who is to say would-be attackers aren't doing the same thing? That is a worrisome thought to the millions of iOS users out there.

This is not the first time Google has been in hot water over its actions. Just last month it fought allegations that Search Plus Your World violates user privacy, and last March it was forced to settle with the FTC over its botched Google Buzz launch.

Photo Credit: Mincemeat/Shutterstock

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