Google, Apple Scenario Suggests, Once Again, Online Privacy Really Doesn't Exist

MagnifyingGlass-SearchPrivacy on the Internet does not exist. Technology enables Web browsers to track mobile or desktop interactions with Web sites and content. Whether intentional or by mistake, sensitive data -- even emails -- are duplicated as they traverse the Internet on their way from one outbox to another's inbox. No Web application or software can prevent the leak of information or data collection. And even if they do, there's always some smart tech whiz who can circumvent privacy settings.

On Friday, several congressmen called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google after The Wall Street Journal reported that companies bypassed Apple Safari browser privacy settings on phones and computers. But the Internet supports no rules -- like the days of the wild, wild West.

While I have stressed this point in the past, last week's Wall Street Journalarticle brings up the topic again. And it's beyond me why anyone would think otherwise -- although a dozen or so recent privacy bills encourage companies to adopt better practices, and companies like Apple try to design their browsers or apps to block tracking by default.

Some tech-industry executives have questioned allegations of "iPhone tracking" brought to the forefront by the Wall Street Journal article explaining how Google -- along with several other companies -- managed to circumvent security measures built into Apple's Web browser Safari, despite the browser's ability to block site and click tracking by default.

Google used a piece of code to exploit a loophole in the browser's privacy settings that makes an exception for Web sites when a person interacts with content on the site, such as downloading a White Paper or filling out a form. The code made Safari believe a person submitted a form to Google, allowing the Mountain View, Calif. company to drop a cookie in the browser.

Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer spotted Google's code. Ashkan Soltani, a technical adviser to the Journal, confirmed it. The WSJ points out similar techniques used by three other online ad companies: Vibrant Media, WPP PLC's Media Innovation Group, and Gannett's PointRoll.

PointRoll does not currently employ the Safari technique outlined in the article, PointRoll CEO Rob Gatto explains in a blog post. He admits the company conducted a limited test in the Safari browser to determine the effectiveness of its mobile ads that ended on Feb. 8, 2012. The test did not involve the collection, retention or resale of any specific user information, and the company made the decision not to use the technology. It is not part of the company's standard service offering. 

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