Google caught tracking Apple users

Google is on the defensive after The Wall Street Journal revealed the company has been tracking Apple Safari users in violation of the Web browser's privacy settings.

Google says the tracking was inadvertent and the problem has been fixed.

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But Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), who was already scrutinizing Google over planned changes to its privacy policy, said she plans to bring company officials back to Washington for more questioning.

"Even if unintentional, as the company claims, these types of incidents continue to create consumer concerns about how their personal information is used and shared," Bono Mack said. "Companies need to be open about what they’re collecting and how that information is used."

Consumer Watchdog, a frequent Google critic, accused the company of lying and urged the Federal Trade Commission to take "immediate action" to crack down on the "unfair and deceptive trade practices."

Rachel Whetstone, Google's vice president of communications and public policy, said the Journal story  "mischaracterizes what happened and why."

Unlike other Web browsers, Apple Safari's default settings prohibit sites from saving small files called cookies, which can be used to track users.

One exception to this rule is that Safari allows some cookies that enable users to engage in social media content on other sites. For example, the exception allows users to click Facebook's "Like" button when they are on news sites.

Google installed a temporary cookie to allow users to interact with the company's "+1" button on sites and ads. But this feature caused Safari to accept other tracking files from Google's ad network.

As a result, Safari users saw ads tailored to their browsing history, a violation of their privacy settings.

"We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers," Whetstone said.  "It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

An Apple official told the newspaper that the company is "working to put a stop" to Google's tracking of Safari users.

Safari is the default browser on iPhones and iPads.  

"Users of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome were not affected," Whetstone said. Those browsers' default privacy settings already allow tracking cookies.