Due to recent changes, Google’s privacy policies have been closely scrutinized by industry experts, government regulators, and consumer advocacy groups over the past several months. On Friday afternoon a Stanford graduate student and tech researcher, Jonathan Mayer, discovered that Google was using a special computer code to bypass the privacy settings of millions of Safari users.
Google bypassed the default Safari privacy settings by hiding a web form inside of an online ad displayed on the website. Once a Safari user clicked the +1 button within the ad, a web form falsely communicated that the Safari user had completed a form and as a result Google was able to install a tracking cookie.
Since the Apple browser is one of the most popular browsers in the world and comes preinstalled on iPhones, iPads, and Apple computers, this privacy breach was widespread and has affected a relatively large percentage of Internet users. Members of Congress have already written a letter requesting that the FTC investigate what has been dubbed as “Cookiegate.”
The Consumer Watchdog project director John Simpson stated that Google’s tracking cookies were questionable from an ethical standpoint:
“Google has clearly engaged in ‘unfair and deceptive’ practices. They have been lying about how people can protect their privacy in their instructions about how to opt out of receiving targeted advertising.”
Google, who agreed to an FTC settlement that can fine the company up to $16,000 a day per violation, released a statement indicating the company felt they had done nothing wrong.
“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.”
After Mayer and the Wall Street Journal broke the story on Friday, Google announced they were discontinuing the use of the controversial tracking cookies and indicated that the cookies had not collected personal or sensitive information. Although the Google cookies have been disabled, an Apple employee has indicated the company is working on a complete solution to prevent companies from circumnavigating the Safari privacy settings in the future.