In the ongoing debate over online privacy, Google seems to always rise to the top of the discussion, in a bad way. The latest installment of the Google's privacy faux pas comes from their workaround on Apple's Safari web browser according to the Wall Street Journal. In a nutshell Safari allows web users, both on computers and their iPhones and iPads, to browse the web without allowing lots of web advertisers to install cookies onto the device to track their surfing habits (to an extent). According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. doesn't have a lot of laws about how the type of information Google and other companies gather can be used. The Obama administration has proposed the idea of a "privacy bill of rights" that would lay down some boundaries for this, but nothing official has been passed. Europe has stricter laws, and Google has come under fire for alleged violations of their laws. In short, governments have brought up Google's infractions more than users.
So what did Google do about it? They found a clever workaround.
What Google Actually Did
A researcher from Stanford found that out of the top 100 websites, about 22 of them were able to download a cookie from Google to a browsing device using Safari, despite Safari's default setting of not allowing a user's information to be used, unless they directly interact with a website in some way.
That's where Google got creative. They did a spin move around the block by tricking Safari into thinking that a user had submitted a form to the site, which qualifies as an interaction, and then used that interaction to download a cookie onto the device.
It's pretty inventive, but it made a lot (or maybe just a few) people angry.
Before we go on, we should also mention that Google isn't the sole conspirator in all this. Other advertising companies including Vibrant Media Inc., Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.'s PointRoll Inc. also did the same thing. Two wrongs, or four, don't make a right, but Google taking all the heat for this really isn't fair.
Why It Does and Doesn't Matter
Let's start with why this workaround on the Safari browser does matter. First, people in general care about their privacy. No one wants to feel like their privacy is being violated in any way and we don't like to feel as if companies are using our information without us knowing about it.
Which brings us to the next point: this probably doesn't matter all that much. Google and other advertisers have been putting cookies on our computers and tracking what we do, at least to a certain extent, for years. This is not a new idea. If we were all asked the question, "Are there any free lunches?" we'd all know what the answer is. Google Maps, Gmail, Calendar and Docs (and do we need to even mention Search?) do not cost us a dime. However, we do pay for them, with our information. That information is then used to sell us ads.
The more information Google has about us the more likely we are to identify with the ads we see. That doesn't mean they should have access to all of our information in the name of better advertisements, but again we're using these services for free.
What Google Is Doing About Privacy Right Now
On March 1, Google revamped their privacy terms to bring more than 60 privacy agreements down to just a few. The result of what they did allows Google to combine all of the information they receive from their different websites (Google search, YouTube, Maps, etc.) into one central identity for each user. So if you log into Google and search, then watch videos on YouTube, then look at Google Maps, all of that information will be combined.
Google does offer a way to opt out of identifying this information with your Google account, but you will not be able to keep Google from tracking your online habits, even if you opt out. You will only be able to dissociate your Google account with that information.
The Bottom Line
No matter which side of the debate you fall on, you may want to remember Google's new privacy changes when browsing the Internet, as well as how Google has treated your information in the recent past (especially if you're a Safari user). Quitting Google altogether is probably not an option, but there are a few alternatives. For most, allowing some of your information to be shared is probably just the cost of doing business for "free."
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. doesn't have a lot of laws about how the type of information Google and other companies gather can be used. The Obama administration has proposed the idea of a "privacy bill of rights" that would lay down some boundaries for this, but nothing official has been passed. Europe has stricter laws, and Google has come under fire for alleged violations of their laws. In short, governments have brought up Google's infractions more than users.