Google Under Fire for Circumvention of Cookie Settings in Safari for iOS to Track Users

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google and several other advertising agencies have been discovered to be circumventing privacy protections in Apple's Safari browser for iOS devices in order to track users through ads on numerous popular websites. Google implemented the technique in order to embed +1 buttons on its ads, tricking users' systems into allowing cookies by using an invisible form submission to make Google's third-party cookies, which are blocked by Safari, appear as first-party cookies that are allowed.

To get around Safari's default blocking, Google exploited a loophole in the browser's privacy settings. While Safari does block most tracking, it makes an exception for websites with which a person interacts in some way—for instance, by filling out a form. So Google added coding to some of its ads that made Safari think that a person was submitting an invisible form to Google. Safari would then let Google install a cookie on the phone or computer.

The cookie that Google installed on the computer was temporary; it expired in 12 to 24 hours. But it could sometimes result in extensive tracking of Safari users. This is because of a technical quirk in Safari that allows companies to easily add more cookies to a user's computer once the company has installed at least one cookie.

google safari ios tracking
Google halted the practice once it was contacted by The Wall Street Journal about it, but has tried to downplay the impact of the issue.

In a statement, Google said: "The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. 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."

In a companion blog post, The Wall Street Journal notes that the loophole that had permitted Google to bypass Safari's privacy protections has been closed in WebKit, the open source engine behind Safari, with the change having been made by two Google engineers. Consequently, Apple could and appears to be preparing to bring that fix to the public version of Safari.

An Apple spokesman said: “We are aware that some third parties are circumventing Safari’s privacy features and we are working to put a stop to it.”

An update to the software that underlies Safari has closed the loophole that allows cookies to be set after the automatic submission of invisible forms. Future public versions of Safari could incorporate that update. The people who handled the proposed change, according to software documents: two engineers at Google.

The issue was discovered by Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mayer, who has also published an extensive blog post offering additional technical details on how Google and other advertising companies circumvented Safari's default cookie settings.

Top Rated Comments

3N16MA Avatar
123 months ago
"Don't be evil."
Score: 36 Votes (Like | Disagree)
newagemac Avatar
123 months ago
This is completely unacceptable. You would expect this kind of behavior from some type of shady malware outfit. Is this what Google has become? I know the "don't be evil" thing was thrown out the window a long time ago but this is stooping to a new low even for Google.
Score: 32 Votes (Like | Disagree)
lifeinhd Avatar
123 months ago
It's like Google is trying to become nothing more than adware or something.

:rolleyes:
Score: 31 Votes (Like | Disagree)
jon1987 Avatar
123 months ago
If they behave in this way with someone else's browser, makes you wander what shady activities they get up to on their own.
Score: 30 Votes (Like | Disagree)
FloatingBones Avatar
123 months ago
This is evil.

This is evil. These yahoos were deliberately working around the privacy/security on a platform. There should be a massive fine and people should be fired from the company.

The really shocking thing is that very smart people within the company noted this loophole and designed the workaround. Did their ethical light-bulbs never go on? Can the government subpoena email records to see how high up the company people knew about this evil act?
Score: 30 Votes (Like | Disagree)
trainwrecka Avatar
123 months ago
Google exploits it.
Google fixes it (both on their end, and in Webkit project source)

Sounds like it really was purely unintentional. It's such a short lived behavior, they can't really get anything significant out of it.

Non-issue, only newsworthy because it's mildly interesting.

Yup, I "unintentionally" write lines of code all the time that exploit loopholes that benefit me.
Score: 29 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

iPhone 13 Always On Feature

iPhone 13 to Bring Over a Major Feature From the Apple Watch

Wednesday July 28, 2021 2:21 am PDT by
Apple's upcoming iPhone 13 lineup will feature an always-on display akin to the Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6, according to recent reports. In his weekly Power On newsletter, Bloomberg journalist Mark Gurman, who often reveals accurate insights into Apple's plans, said that the iPhone 13 may feature an Apple Watch-inspired always-on mode. The Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch...
REC ASA CODE2016 20160601 205816 2745

Elon Musk Reportedly Demanded to Become Apple CEO as Part of Potential Tesla Acquisition [Update: Musk Denies]

Friday July 30, 2021 9:04 am PDT by
Tesla CEO Elon Musk reportedly once demanded that he be made Apple CEO in a brief discussion of a potential acquisition with Apple's current CEO, Tim Cook. The claim comes in a new book titled "Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century," as reviewed by The Los Angeles Times. According to the book, during a 2016 phone call between Musk and Cook that touched on the possibility of ...
duracell battery bitter coating

Apple Says Don't Buy AirTag Replacement Batteries With Bitter Coating

Wednesday July 28, 2021 11:08 am PDT by
Since AirTags were just released earlier this year and are expected to have a year-long battery life, it may be some time yet before AirTag users need a replacement battery, but when the time comes for a refresh, Apple is warning customers not to buy batteries with a bitter coating. AirTags use coin-shaped CR2032 batteries, which happen to be a size that's easy to swallow. Some battery...
nothing ear 1 buds 1

Nothing 'Ear (1)' True Wireless Earbuds Launch to Take on AirPods Pro With ANC and Unusual Design for $99

Tuesday July 27, 2021 7:57 am PDT by
Nothing, a new brand from OnePlus founder Carl Pei, has today officially launched the "Ear (1)" true wireless earbuds after months of anticipation around the company's AirPods Pro rival. The Ear (1) features an in-ear design, Active Noise Cancelation, Bluetooth 5.2, IPX4 water resistance, and a charging case with Qi-compatible wireless charging and a USB-C port. Fast pairing is supported on...
General Apps Messages

Android iMessage Competitor Puts Pressure on Apple

Friday July 30, 2021 3:15 am PDT by
Google and the three major U.S. carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, will all support a new communications protocol on Android smartphones starting in 2022, a move that puts pressure on Apple to adopt a new cross-platform messaging standard and may present a challenge to iMessage. Verizon recently announced that it is planning to adopt Messages by Google as its default messaging...
Apple Leak Feature

Apple Demands Leaker Reveals Sources Under Threat of Being Reported to Police

Wednesday July 28, 2021 6:53 am PDT by
Apple has sent a cease and desist letter to a leaker based in China as part of its continuing attempts to curtail leaks of unreleased products, according to Vice. A Chinese citizen who shared images of stolen Apple prototypes on social media was sent a warning letter from Fangda Partners, Apple's law firm in China, on June 18, 2021. An extract from the letter read:You have disclosed without ...
apple rtp land

Apple Preparing to Occupy 200,000 Square Feet of Temporary Space Ahead of New $1 Billion North Carolina Campus

Thursday July 29, 2021 9:14 am PDT by
Back in April, Apple announced a $430 billion investment over the next five years to create more than 20,000 new jobs as the company continues to expand. One significant piece of that plan is a new engineering and research center in North Carolina where Apple will be investing over $1 billion and hiring at least 3,000 employees. Assemblage of seven properties in Research Triangle Park owned by ...
iOS 15 General Feature Purple

Everything New in iOS 15 Beta 4: Safari Tweaks, MagSafe Battery Pack Support, Notification Updates and More

Tuesday July 27, 2021 11:47 am PDT by
Apple today released the fourth betas of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, introducing additional refinements to the new features that are coming in the software updates. In these betas, Apple has introduced changes for Safari, Notifications, Focus mode, and more. Safari Updates Apple is continuing to refine the design of Safari on the iPhone, and in iOS 15, there are tweaks to improve usability. ...
new m1 chip

Tim Cook on Apple Deciding to Manufacture Components: 'We Ask Ourselves If We Can Do Something Better'

Tuesday July 27, 2021 3:04 pm PDT by
During today's earnings call for the third fiscal quarter of 2021 (second calendar quarter), Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked how Apple decides what components to purchase and what components to develop, and Cook said that Apple asks if it can be done better. We ask ourselves if we can do something better. If we can deliver a better product. If we can buy something in the market and it's great...
a15 chip

iPhone 13 and Redesigned MacBook Pro Chip Production Hit With Gas Contamination

Friday July 30, 2021 5:44 am PDT by
The most important TSMC factory that manufactures Apple's chips destined for next-generation iPhone and Mac models has been hit by a gas contamination, according to Nikkei Asia. The factory, known as "Fab 18," is TSMC's most advanced chipmaking facility. TSMC is Apple's sole chip supplier, making all of the processors used in every Apple device with a custom silicon chip. Industry...