Google and three online ad companies on Friday were accused of bypassing the privacy settings in Apple's Safari web browser to track users' web-browsing habits on their desktops and iPhones.
"Apple's Safari web browser is configured to block third-party cookies by default. We identified four advertising companies that unexpectedly place trackable cookies in Safari. Google and Vibrant Media intentionally circumvent Safari's privacy feature," said Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student at Stanford University, in a blog post released on Friday.
The tracking code was confirmed by a technical adviser to The Wall Street Journal. Among the top 100 websites, ads on 22 sites were found on a test computer with tracking codes installed by Google and ads on 23 sites were installed codes on an iPhone.
According to the research, Google and other companies exploited a loophole in the privacy settings of Apple's Safari browser, which blocks most tracking by default, but makes an exception if a user interacts with the site, such as filling out a form.
"So Google added coding to some of its ads that made Safari think that a person was submitting an invisible form to Google. Safari would then let Google install a cookie on the phone or computer," The Wall Street Journal said in a report.
The report said the small file known as a "cookie" that Google installed expired in 12 to 24 hours, but it could sometimes lead to "extensive tracking of Safari users" as Safari allows companies to add more cookies to a user's computer once it has installed at least one cookie.
Google disabled the code after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal, said the newspaper. The search giant also removed some instructions to Safari users from one of its sites, in which it said users could rely on Safari privacy settings to prevent tracking by Google.
"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," Google said in a statement.
Three other online ad companies that had been accused of using similar coding are Vibrant Media, WPP's Media Innovation Group and Gannett's PointRoll.
Anant Garg, a 25-year-old programmer in Mumbai, India, is the developer of the code "Safari workaround" and blogged about the technique two years ago. He told The Wall Street Journal that he didn't consider the privacy angle, saying that he just wants to make Safari work like other browsers.
The Consumer Watchdog group on Friday asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether Google violates a previous privacy agreement with the FTC by installing tracking cookies that circumvent privacy settings in the Safari browser.
Also on Friday, Microsoft blasts Google over the practice, saying the type of tracking by Google is not new. In a blog post titled "Browse without being browsed," Microsoft promoted its Internet Explorer 9, highlighting its "strongest privacy protection in the industry."
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