Google accused of tracking Safari users’ browsing habits, Microsoft steps in

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Think online privacy issues are restricted to iOS apps? Think again. An exposé in The Wall Street Journal suggests that Google and other advertisers have been tracking the browser habits of Safari users.

According to the Journal, the companies “used special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users”.

This is reportedly in direct contravention of mechanisms built into the Apple web browser, which are meant to block this kind of tracking by default.

The renowned newspaper reports that code was first spotted by a Stanford researcher and verified by a “technical adviser”.

According to the Journal, the code had wide-reaching ramifications as it could “enable Google-tracking across the vast majority of websites” once activated.

The internet giant has, however, accused the Journal of painting a false picture of what the technology does. Rachel Whetstone, Senior Vice President, Communications and Public Policy said:

The Journal mischaracterises 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.

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 “Like” buttons. Last year, we began using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on Safari who had opted to see personalized ads and other content–such as the ability to “+1” 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 personalization. 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. 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.

An Apple official reportedly told the Journal that his company was “working to put a stop” to the circumvention of Safari’s privacy settings.

The Journal claims that the tracking of Safari users traces back to “Google’s competition with social-network giant Facebook” and the war between their respective like and +1 buttons:

Last year, Google added a feature to put the +1 button in ads placed across the Web using Google’s DoubleClick ad technology. The idea: If people like the ad, they could click “+1″ and post their approval to their Google social-networking profile.

But Google faced a problem: Safari blocks most tracking by default. So Google couldn’t use the most common technique—installation of a small file known as a “cookie”—to check if Safari users were logged in to Google.

Google reportedly then used a loophole to get around Safari’s privacy settings.

The Journal claims the fact that Google did so has been an open secret on the web for some time, despite only recently coming to public attention.

Since the Journal’s expose, Microsoft has stepped into fray, opting for “The enemy of my enemy is a marketing opportunity” style logic.

The Redmond-based company (which itself has been conducting a publicity war against Google) released a statement claiming that this “type of tracking by Google is not new”.

It then suggests that users change to its own browser, Internet Explorer 9.

“The Tracking Protection in IE9 is recognised as some of the strongest privacy protection in the industry,” it claims, adding that “IE9 has been described as the ‘epitome of browser choice and control as far as protecting user privacy goes‘ and praised for ‘making strides towards providing users with greater control over their privacy’“.

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