Google Dodges Default Settings on Safari to Track iPhone Browsing

Google worked around a Safari default setting that blocks the ability for websites to track users on iPhones and Apple devices, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Google, along with advertising companies Vibrant Media, PointRoll, and Media Innovation Group, installed special code that lets them work around Safari’s default privacy setting so they can track millions of peoples’ iPhone browsing.

Since Safari comes stock on iPhones, it is the most widely used mobile browser. By default it is set to disallow the tracking of people with the use of cookies, bits of code that attach to individuals and gather intelligence on their browsing. The code used by Google and others tricked Safari into letting them assign cookies on 23 of the 100 most visited sites, according to the WSJ.

Yet for Google, the code follows people beyond those 23 websites, tracking them as they move elsewhere on the web.

The Internet search giant said it did not gather any personal identifying information; the circumvention of the privacy setting was so it could serve targeted ads to people as they surfed the web.

Google removed the code after contacted by the WSJ.

John Battelle, writing on Searchblog, raised the point that Safari’s default setting of disabling cookies goes against the practices of the open web.

Apple’s mobile version of Safari broke with common web practice,  and as a result, it broke Google’s normal approach to engaging with consumers. Was Google’s “normal approach” wrong? Well, I suppose that’s a debate worth having – it’s currently standard practice and the backbone of the entire web advertising ecosystem –  but the Journal doesn’t bother to go into those details. One can debate whether setting cookies should happen by default – but the fact is, that’s how it’s done on the open web.

Battelle goes on to argue that Apple-owned Safari does not block the tracking of your browsing history because it cares deeply about your privacy. Rather, it does so because Apple wants to keep its competition from profiting off the browsing history of people using its iOS devices. The “privacy protection” motive, in other words, is a disguise of the true motive, which is Apple’s agenda to control its users’ experience and block any competitors from profiting off its own “iOS customers.”

This may be true, but I can’t see how it in any way absolves Google of what they’ve done. Surprisingly, Battelle’s argument is blind to the fact that a great many people explicitly knew that Safari’s default setting blocked the tracking of their web browsing and therefore assumed their browsing was kept private and free of cookies. Plain and simple, Google’s circumvention of that default is a breach of that clear and established privacy boundary. Whether cookies are a common industry practice has no bearing on the legality or rectitude of Google’s invasion, nor does the existence of Apple’s potential ulterior motives.

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