Google draws more scrutiny after accidental tracking of Apple users

Lawmakers called for investigations of Google after it was 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 has been fixed.

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But Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether the tracking violated a settlement Google agreed to last year over charges that it misled consumers by automatically opting them into its Buzz social network.

That settlement imposed a set of privacy requirements on Google and bars the company from misrepresenting its policies. 

"Google’s practices could have a wide sweeping impact because Safari is a major web browser used by millions of Americans,” the lawmakers wrote. “As members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we are interested in any actions the FTC has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google has violated the terms of its consent agreement.” 


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.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also said he plans to investigate the issue.

“According to press reports, Google circumvented consumer choice and may have paved the way for third-party ad networks—including Google’s own DoubleClick—to track consumers against their will," Rockefeller said. "If so, this practice may have violated the company’s own stated privacy practices.  I fully intend to look into this matter and determine the extent to which this practice was used by Google and other third parties to circumvent consumer choice.”

Google says it plans to look into the accidental tracking of Safari users, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

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

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."