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What Privacy? Google Tracked iPhone Web Browsing Habits

by Todd Haselton | February 17, 2012February 17, 2012 9:45 am PST


Google and a number of other mobile advertising firms have been secretly tracking the web surfing habits of iPhone users, The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday. Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer discovered Google’s code and another researcher was able to confirm that 23 total sites, out of the Web’s top 100, were secretly installing tracking cookies on iPhones.

Each of the firms was capable of tracking surfing habits using a “special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users,” The Wall Street Journal explained in its report. Here’s how it worked: a user visited a site with Google’s DoubleClick mobile ads on it, DoubleClick then installed a cookie that allowed Google to keep track of a user’s browsing habits.

It’s a major security and privacy issue for iPhone users because Safari was built to block that type of monitoring. Once the code was activated, Google was capable of tracking users across most websites, too. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC’s Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.’s PointRoll Inc also used code to track iPhone browsing habits.

Google was tricking its users, however. It basically flat out told them that Safari could be used to block Google tracking, even though the company was actually secretly going behind the scenes to continue to track users. “The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why,” Google said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. “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.”

The good news, if there’s any at all, is that Google stopped tracking users after the WSJ published its story. Apple confirmed that it is working to “put a stop” to Google’s practices, too.

[via The Wall Street Journal]

Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...