Google tricked Apple’s Safari privacy settings, tracked users: report

google surveillance camera

Google is in the fire once again. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google used a special code to bypass the default privacy settings on Apple’s iPhone browser and Safari on PCs. The code allowed Google to track Web users, and send that information to the company’s DoubleClick ad network.

Discovered by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, the code’s tracking feature was a technical side-effect, which allowed users to sign into Google+, and click “+1” buttons on DoubleClick ads, which in turn shared those ads with friends by posting a message on those users Google+ profiles.

Safari, on both iOS devices and on Macs, is set to automatically block installation of third-party cookies used to track users. (Other types of cookies, like those that tell the computer that a user has visited a website before, are allowed.) Google’s code secretly submitted a form that made Safari behave as though the user had authorized the cookie installation.

After being contacted by WSJ about the code’s tracking functionality, Google immediately disabled the code. Still, the company asserts that the situation is not as bad as the paper makes it out to be.

“The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why,” Google said in a statement. “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.”

Additionally, Google’s European Director of Communications, Rachel Whetstone, said the code was actually intended to keep users’ anonymous when Safari was connecting with Google’s servers, and that the tracking was entirely unintentional.

“We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers,” she said. “It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”

Part of the reason the code was able to operate in the way that it did is due to an oddity in how Safari treats cookies. Once a site has installed a single cookie onto a device, Safari then makes it easy for the site to install additional cookies. This enables sites like Facebook and Google+ to install cookies via the “Like” or “+1” buttons that are installed on countless sites across the Web, as long as a user has actually visited one of these sites first.

Google has been repeatedly criticized for playing loose with user privacy. Just recently, the company came under fire for changing its privacy policy to allow it to more easily share information about users between its various products. The European Union has pushed for Google to overturn these changes. The Electronic Privacy Information Center last week sued the US Federal Trade Commission, in attempt to compel the government to force Google to change its privacy policy. And last year, in a settlement (pdf) with the FTC, Google was forced to promise that it would not “misrepresent” its privacy practices. Were it to do so, Google would have to pay a fine of $16,000 per violation, per day. It is not yet known whether the FTC considers Google’s use of this code a violation.

Update: Consumer Watchdog advocacy group has formally requested that the FTC investigate whether the code’s circumvention of Safari privacy settings constitutes a violation of Google’s settlement. See the request here: pdf.

In addition to Google, the Stanford study found that three other online ad firms were using similar codes to bypass Safari’s privacy settings: Vibrant Media, WPP’s Media Innovation Group, and Gannett’s PointRoll.

An Apple spokesperson told WSJ that it is aware that companies are circumventing Safari’s privacy settings, and is “working to put a stop to it.”

Smart Home

The robot invasion arrived at CES 2019 — and it was cuter than we expected

Robots are finally at our doorsteps, but they’re not here to annihilate us (yet), they’re here to be our friends. CES 2019 showed us some of the cutest robots we’ve ever seen. Here are some of our favorites.

Lost your router? Here's how to find its IP address to help track it down

Changing the login information for your router isn't always easy, that's why so many have that little card on the back. But in order to use it, you need to know where to go. Here's how to find the IP address of your router.

This A.I.-powered camera follows the action to produce epic selfie videos

Want to capture more epic action selfies? The Obsbot Tail is a camera-gimbal combo that uses artificial intelligence to follow the action. Using a handful of different modes, the camera works to keep the action in the frame.

Protecting your PDF with a password isn't difficult. Just follow these steps

If you need to learn how to password protect a PDF, you have come to the right place. This guide will walk you through the process of protecting your documents step-by-step, whether you're running a MacOS or Windows machine.

Looking to upgrade? These are the best iPhone deals for January 2019

Apple devices can get expensive, but if you just can't live without iOS, don't despair: We've curated an up-to-date list of all of the absolute best iPhone deals available for January 2019.

Style up your MacBook Air with one of these great cases or sleeves

Whether you’re looking for added protection or a stylish flourish, you’re in the right place for the best MacBook Air cases. We have form-hugging cases, luxurious covers and padded sleeves priced from $10 to $130. Happy shopping!

Rumors say Apple's AirPower wireless charger may finally be in production

At its September event in 2018, Apple unveiled the AirPower, a new wireless charging mat that will allow you to charge multiple devices at one time. It has not yet been released. Here's everything we know about the device so far.

Beam up the videos: AirPlay support is coming to VLC player

At CES 2019, the developers of VLC player announced they are adding support for Apple's Airplay feature, allowing consumers to beam video and other content from their iPhone and Android devices to an Apple TV. 

If you're looking for a good laugh, here are 70 questions to ask Siri

Siri has come a long way since her first appearance on the iPhone 4S in 2011. We know she can make appointments and give directions, did you know she can make you laugh too? If you want proof, here are lots of funny questions to ask Siri.

Save over $350 on the Refurbished iPad 4 for a limited time

Looking to buy an iPad without having to pay that iPad price? For a limited time, you can pick up a refurbished iPad 4 for as low as $137. That's $363 less than you would pay for something brand new.
Movies & TV

Apple’s first original feature film reunites Bill Murray, Sofia Coppola

The Lost in Translation team of Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray will reunite with their A Very Murray Christmas collaborator Rashida Jones for On the Rocks, Apple and studio A24's first official feature together.

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2019

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.

On a budget? We found the best affordable smartphones you can buy

Here are the best cheap phones for anyone working with a tight budget, whether you're a fan of stock Android or marathon battery life. Find out what you can get for under $500 or far, far less as we round up the best budget smartphones.

Apple’s official iPhone XS battery case is finally here

Apple has been rumored to be working on a new iPhone battery case for the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR. Now, those new cases are finally here, offering seven hours of extra use for each iPhone and are available for $129.