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Google Secretly Bypassed iPhone Privacy Settings

A Stanford researcher discovered that Google was purposefully circumventing the privacy settings in the iPhone's web browser in order to store cookies that track users' movements online. As soon as this was revealed publicly, first in a Wall Street Journal report, Google stopped the practice. But the question remains: Why the heck would Google do such a thing in the first place?

Google says it's all a misunderstanding.

"The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why," a Google statement reads. "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."

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal says that Google has also silently removed language from its website that had previously stated that using the privacy settings in the iPhone correctly would prevent Google from tracking users online.

The paper also notes that Google is under "intense scrutiny" for its privacy practices and that it had previously promised not to misrepresent its privacy policy with consumers in a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year. At least two groups have already complained to the FTC that this practice violates that settlement, and the FTC says it's investigating.

Meanwhile, Apple says it is fixing its iPhone software to prevent Google and others from bypassing the privacy settings chosen by users. The iPhone web browser, Safari, supposedly blocks cookie-based tracking by default, but clearly there's a flaw in that functionality.

"We are aware that some third parties are circumventing Safari's privacy features, and we are working to put a stop to it," an Apple statement notes.

OK, but why surreptitiously enable user tracking on the iPhone? Google says it did this so that users could take advantage of a Google+ feature called "+1" that is similar to Facebook's "Like" functionality. "Last year, we began using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on [the iPhone's version of] Safari who had opted to see personalized ads and other content—such as the ability to '+1' things that interest them," a Google statement explains. "We have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers." 

Don't be evil, indeed.

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