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Google Caught Tracking iPhone Users By Evading Safari’s Safeguards

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According to the Wall Street Journal, Google and other companies have been secretly tracking iPhone users by circumventing Safari to ‘trick’ it into accepting cookies from third parties:

The companies used special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users. Safari, the most widely used browser on mobile devices, is designed to block such tracking by default.

Google disabled its code after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal.

The Google code was spotted by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer and independently confirmed by a technical adviser to the Journal, Ashkan Soltani, who found that ads on 22 of the top 100 websites installed the Google tracking code on a test computer, and ads on 23 sites installed it on an iPhone browser.

Google responded to the WSJ with:

“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.”

What makes this story interesting is the WSJ notes Google noted on its own website to Safari users they could rely on the browser’s privacy settings to prevent any tracking by Google–but this information was removed Tuesday night.

Apple responded to the WSJ with:

“We are working to put a stop” to the circumvention of Safari privacy settings.

What ever happened to Google’s mantra of ‘Don’t be evil’? Is that over now? Here’s a diagram of how Google was able to circumvent Safari into accepting a cookie, and allow tracking of users for up to 24 hours:

What do you think about this? Should we be worried about Google tracking our surfing habits, along with other companies too? They already know everything about us since we’re using Gmail!

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  • Anonymous

    These are just tracking cookies!   Most users have tons of these in their desktop browsers, and most do not care or worry about them.

    The title of the article sounds alarming, and unnecessarily so.   These tracking cookies can’t really identify any individuals.  It’s only useful for group targeted ads or browsing habits analysis.

    When we browse any web page, the web server can gather a lot of information about you – your IPs, which page’s link you clicked, your browser etc….  more info than tracking cookies can; and they are all recorded in their web server logs.   So there is no hiding when we surf the web (unless you resort to proxy and changing the headers).  I don’t think tracking cookies are worth getting paranoid about.

  • LMFAO

    Oh no, Google is tracking me, LMAO!   Of all the things to worry about privacy, a tracking cookie is the least.   Talk about over-blown paranoia.

  • Anon

    And how is this considered “evil”?

  • Tomsiphone

    I agree that “they’re only tracking cookies”, so big whoop!  It not a major deal. 

    But, they clearly intentionally circumvented Safari’s security.  It wasn’t an “ooops”!  If they got caught doing this….what haven’t they been caught doing?  It’s not paranoia or conspiracy-mongering, just food for thought.

    I love my country but fear my government…..

  • they circumvented privacy settings. there is literally a diagrams drawn for you above.

  • Anonymous

    What’s privacy?

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  • Anonymous

    Circumvent privacy settings?  Really?
    In my iPhone 4S, the default settings for Private browsing is OFF and “Accept Cookies” is set to accept “Visited”.   How many users actually check or change Safari settings… ever?   So I still don’t get what this article is trying to say.

  • Anon

    Right.  So tell me, how is tracking my web surfing habits anonymously considered evil?  Is there any malicious intent or harm caused by doing so?  Nope.

  • Anon

    The same can be said about Apple’s location services a while back when it was secretly tracking without user consent.  That certainly wasn’t an “ooopsie” as well.  Think of all the Apple devices out there, and what they haven’t been caught doing.    This privacy issue is a joke.

  • Johna

    Anon, get your facts straight. It was an oopsie that a year’s data was stored and what was ‘tracked’ were the locations if the wifi ssid’s so that location services would run faster (something all phones with agps do). Apple didn’t use any of that data to eventually make money. Google on the other hand is actively trying to make money.

  • Johna

    traking the habits isn’t, but doing it without telling anyone is.

  • Johna

    do you know what private browsing does?

  • Anonymous

     Johna, whether making money or not is irrelevant.  The location service data tracking is much more serious if the file got into the wrong hands – it basically reveals the history of all your whereabouts!  OTOH, Google’s tracking cookies is really very benign.   First, it cannot track back to you or identify you; and yeah, it knows that someone visited certain web sites before this one – well, big deal!   I won’t lose any sleep over it.

  • Anon

     Look up the definition of ‘evil’.  What Google has done is far from it.

  • Anon

    You don’t get it.  Apple knew exactly what was happening but chose to do nothing.  That is until word got out and people started bitching.  The main issue is the same as with Google, tracking without user consent. 

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