WSJ: Safari Loophole Allowed Google to Track Users via Ads

Over the last few weeks, Google's found itself at the receiving end of quite a bit of criticism regarding planned changes to its privacy policy. Now it seems the company is in hot water again. An article published in the Wall Street Journal has revealed that the search giant (along with several other ad networks) has been tracking iPhone and Mac users via Apple's Safari browser.

Here's what happened: Apple's Safari browser is set to block third-party cookies by default, accepting cookies only from sites that a user visits or interacts with. However, there is an exception to this rule that allows cookies if you interact with a form or advertisement in certain ways. The Journal reports that Google and other ad networks took advantage of this exception by using an invisible form and its +1 Google+ recommendation system. Essentially, Google allowed Safari users who had signed into Google+ to interact with DoubleClick ads using an embedded '+1' button. This would then send off an invisible form that would have Safari think the user had provided permission for cookies to be stored.

For its part, Google says that it used this workaround to enable signed-in users to give +1 votes to content, but was unaware that it inadvertently enabled the advertising cookies. The search giant has since disabled the feature. It said in a statement to Electronista that users who had opted out of its interest-based ad program (via Google's Ad Preferences Manager) were not affected by the work around. Check out the full statement below:

"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.

Google wasn't the only one using this loophole. The code, which was discovered by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, was also used by Media Innovation Group, PointRoll, and Vibrant Media. However, Google is the most high-profile of the listed offenders, and with recent discussions over the search giant's attitude to user privacy, it's hardly surprising that is receiving more attention than others over this.

[UPDATE] Well, it's all fun and games until someone phones the FTC, isn't it? Ars reports that Consumer Watchdog has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate this issue. Specifically, they want to know if Google has violated a previous agreement with the FTC by tracking cookies in this way.

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Jane McEntegart works in marketing communications at Intel and was previously Manager of Content Marketing at ASUS North America. Before that, she worked for more than seven years at Tom's Guide and Tom's Hardware, holding such roles as Contributing Editor and Senior News Editor and writing about everything from smartphones to tablets and games consoles.