Google, the world's largest Web presence, in addition to other advertisers, bypassed the privacy settings of users of Apple's Safari Web browser on their iPhones and computers so they could track Web-browsing habits they had intended to be blocked.
To do it, the companies used a special code that tricked Apple's Safari Web-browsing software into dropping its guard, so to speak, thus allowing them to monitor users. Safari, which is the most widely used browser on mobile devices, is designed by default to block such monitoring.
Whether it's for "the good of the country" or to sell you something, it seems more and more that, in the information age, a primary use of technology is to rob you of your inherent right to privacy.
Online equivalent of a stalker
The code was spotted by Stanford University researcher Jonathan Mayer, and was then independently confirmed by a technical guru obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Ashkan Soltani, who ultimately discovered that advertisements on '' of the world's top '00 Web sites installed Google's tracking code on a test computer, while ads on '3 sites installed the code on an iPhone browser.
But the tracking didn't stop there. The nature of the secret code was such that it would allow Google to track an affected iPhone or computer across several Web sites, once it was activated. And Google isn't the only guilty party: The Wall Street Journal said three ad companies -- Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC's Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.'s PointRoll Inc. -- were found to be using similar tracking techniques.
For the record, Vibrant Media is a company that "provides contextual and in-text advertising solutions for advertisers and publishers," according to Businessweek. Media Innovation Group http://www.themig.com (startling no doubt being the improper tracking of Web users). Gannett - owner of USA Today and scores of other newspapers - is, first and foremost, also a media marketing company. So all three would definitely benefit from stealing a user's personal browsing histories so they can better target you with their client's ads.
Just a misunderstanding?
For its part, Google said that The Wall Street Journal had it all wrong. The paper "mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled," said Google in a statement. "It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."
Really? Well, if the secret code didn't collect some sort of personally identifiable information, then what value would the browsing habits have been to the perpetrators? The point allegedly was to learn habits so ad clients of these media firms could ostensibly get more mileage from their advertising buys.
"Surfing online from the privacy of your home may give the illusion of confidentiality, but in reality, search engines like Yahoo! and Google are tracking every move you make in cyberspace. In fact, even Internet service providers use technologies that track their subscribers' online activities," says Jennifer Martin of the Earthlink Security Center.
"This practice, known as behavioral targeting, is a method marketers use to show you online ads, content and products based on your browsing habits and shopping history. Tracking your recent Internet activity allows search engines to assemble a profile of you that they can sell or share with other advertisers," she writes.
Uncle Sam and Corporate America may no longer respect your right to privacy, but you are entitled to it nonetheless, even in - or especially in - the information age.