Stanford Researcher Catches Google, Others Being a Little Bit Evil

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News Posted: Sat, Feb 18 2012 2:44 PM
In an age where data is everything, the constant give-and-take over giving up a certain amount of digital privacy in exchange for free services (Facebook, Google products, etc.) can often veer into murky waters. This week, Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer spotted Google neck deep in it, and the Wall Street Journal broke the story wide open.

Lots of companies all over use cookies to track our Web habits so they can target ads at us. There are ways to block cookies, but Apple’s Safari browser blocks most third-party cookies by default, so users don’t have to mess with it. Google apparently developed a way to secretly get around the blocks: It found a loophole in Safari’s privacy settings that allows an ad to track a user if the user interacts with the ad, and it made the browser think that was happening by sending an invisible form.

The WSJ included this helpful infographic to explain how it worked:



Although Safari has a very small share in the desktop browser market, it’s the default browser on iOS devices, so it accounts for a much larger percentage of mobile Web traffic.


Image credit: Gizmodo

The WSJ posted a statement from Google, which 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."

If this activity was indeed on the up and up, why did Google keep it hidden? The company has no problem telling us that it’s changing its privacy policies and absorbing the backlash, so why do this in secret?

Perhaps this wasn't technically evil, but it was certainly sneaky and unsettling, and it makes the whole "Don't be evil" mantra seem like mere lipservice.

Google wasn’t the only culprit, though; the WSJ found that three other companies were guilty of the same thing: Vibrant Media Inc., Media Innovation Group LLC, and PointRoll Inc.

According to the Journal, Google took down the code after the paper contacted it on Thursday.
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MMonelli replied on Sat, Feb 18 2012 4:24 PM

lol, photoshop work

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tktim replied on Sat, Feb 18 2012 5:45 PM

There just tracking cookies that have been used since the beginning of the internet. (Turn off cookies and things may slow down when opening a site.) No personal information is involved. They were using the information to display ads more tailored to you on the web pages you visit. So if your looking for new shoes the ads may shows new shoes or maybe socks. No personal names are involved, etc. Google said this was an error and immediately stopped and removed the cookies. They will re-code to correct the error. Big deal.

Worse is Apple who are control freaks with their apps allowing all 3rd parties to down load all of your personal contacts without telling you. That is names, phone numbers, street address, email addresses, etc. So Apple allows 3rd party vendors to know every person on your contact list. This could include local people, out of state people, people in another country and and notes you have include with your contacts. Other systems allow this also but they tell you and get your advanced approval. Apple said it will stop, but how do you get your personal data erased from all these 3rd party vendors, some not even in the US? Some app vendors are just individuals. Why is no one suing Apple. This seems like a lot bigger deal.

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karanm replied on Sat, Feb 18 2012 7:40 PM

tktim is absolutely right, google has done this before and now its on ios devices so people thinks its a big deal. i would definitely be more concerned with all the contacts being stolen from my device than whether google knows how i spend my time on the internet. Might be a problem for some people who access secure websites or are into some real freaky stuff!!

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Come on everyone already knows that Google, FB, and Bing are all evil to name a few it is all about the bottom dollar and it does not really matter if they violate a few peoples privacy in the process. Glad they got caught using this exploit but you know Apple can't really fix it so who knows who else will try it.

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