According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), search giant Google has been ‘secretly’ collecting details about users’ habits through the Safari web browser on Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
The WSJ asserts that Google embedded a code on millions of iPhones, to enable it to gather user information on homepage visits. While the Safari browser has been configured to block third-party cookies, Google managed to by-pass this feature.
The code was installed on ads from sites such as Fandango.com, Match.com, AOL.com, TMZ.com and UrbanDictionary.com, and once in place, Google was able to track user movement across a broad range of web sites.
As news of the initiative broke, Google deleted the program and denied all charges that it had collected private information from users, saying that the code could only be activated if users opted in to one of its services, such as Gmail.
However, the firm did admit that the code had ‘inadvertently’ enabled Google web ad cookies to be installed on users’ phones without their permission.
Rachel Whetstone, Google SVP for Communications and Public Policy, responded to the WSJ in a statement: ‘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. We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these ad cookies from Safari browsers.’
The US Congress has now asked the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s actions, which it claims could be a ‘violation’ of an agreement signed last year between the regulator and the company on privacy protection.
The WSJ has also claimed that three online ad agencies – WPP’s Media Innovation, Gannett’s PointRoll, and Vibrant Media – were able to get around the Safari privacy settings by using similar techniques.