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    Google Accused of Circumventing Privacy Settings on Apple’s Safari Browser

    We’ve discussed before how some Internet browsers have Do Not Track features to give consumers more control over the personal data that is gathered by Web sites or advertisers. The Do Not Track and other privacy tools in browsers seek to avoid “cookies,” which collect data about and can track users’ Internet searches and sites visited. Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Explorer browsers all have Do Not Track tools that people use to avoid companies gathering and using browsing data for targeted behavioral advertising and other activities.

    Now, the Wall Street Journal reports on new research by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer that shows four companies seek to circumvent consumers’ privacy settings in Apple’s browser, Safari. Mayer wrote: “We identified four advertising companies that unexpectedly place trackable cookies in Safari. Google and Vibrant Media intentionally circumvent Safari’s privacy feature. Media Innovation Group and PointRoll serve scripts that appear to be derived from circumvention example code.”

    Google has faced criticisms about its privacy policy. Recently, Google announced changes in its privacy policies that will affect users of its services, such as search, Gmail, Google+ and YouTube. Advocates and legislators questioned the changes, saying that there were privacy issues, and criticized the Internet services giant (Congress pdf; archive pdf) for not including an opt-out provision; Google said that users who objected could stop using its services and move their data elsewhere. Google responded to the criticisms in a letter (pdf) to U.S. lawmakers and a blog post. The EU’s Article 29 Data Protection Working Party has written (Working Party pdf; archive pdf) to Google about the privacy policy, saying it will investigate the changes and asking the company to halt its privacy policy change while more the investigation continues into whether Google’s changes violate European privacy law. Last year, Google settled with the Federal Trade Commission over its Buzz social-networking product; the company agreed to a comprehensive privacy program to settle charges (pdf) it “used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network, Google Buzz.” Google also has faced scrutiny for privacy questions in its Street View product.

    The Journal reports:

    Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers—tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.

    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.

    The technique reaches far beyond those websites, however, because once the coding was activated, it could enable Google tracking across the vast majority of websites. Three other online-ad companies were found using similar techniques: Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC’s Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.’s PointRoll Inc. [...]

    In a statement, Google said: “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.”

    The Journal also has an in-depth look at exactly how Google circumvented Safari’s privacy technology: “How Google Tracked Safari Users.”

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