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.

Popular Stories

iOS 18 Siri Integrated Feature

Report: These 10 New AI Features Are Coming in iOS 18

Sunday May 26, 2024 12:57 pm PDT by
iOS 18 and macOS 15 will offer an array of new AI features such as auto-generated emojis, suggested replies to emails and messages, and more, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reports. A significant portion of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is expected to focus on AI features. Writing his latest "Power On" newsletter, Gurman explained that Apple's AI strategy emphasizes providing...
new best buy blue

Best Buy's Memorial Day Sale Has Record Low Prices on iPads, MacBooks, and Much More

Friday May 24, 2024 7:12 am PDT by
Best Buy today kicked off its Memorial Day weekend sale, and it has some of the best prices we've tracked in weeks on iPads and MacBooks. Specifically, you'll find record low prices on the 5th generation iPad Air, iPad mini 6, M2 MacBook Air, and M3 MacBook Pro. Note: MacRumors is an affiliate partner with Best Buy. When you click a link and make a purchase, we may receive a small payment,...
iOS 18 WWDC 24 Feature 2

Gurman: iOS 18 Will Allow Users to Recolor App Icons and Place Them Anywhere

Sunday May 26, 2024 12:22 pm PDT by
Apple's iOS 18 update will introduce new features for further customizing the iPhone's home screen, according to Bloomberg's Mark Gurman. In the latest edition of his "Power On" newsletter, Gurman claimed that Apple will allow users to change the color of app icons in iOS 18. For example, "you can make all your social icons blue or finance-related ones green." This kind of home screen...
Apple iPhone 14 color lineup feature

Apple Now Selling Refurbished iPhone 14 Models

Friday May 24, 2024 11:15 am PDT by
Apple today added refurbished iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Plus, iPhone 14 Pro, and iPhone 14 Pro Max devices to its online store for refurbished products, offering the prior-generation iPhones at a discount for the first time since their 2022 launch. The iPhone 14 is available starting at $619, the iPhone 14 Pro is available starting at $759, and the iPhone 14 Pro Max is available starting at $849. ...
top stories 25may2024

Top Stories: iOS 17.5.1 Fixes Concerning Photos Bug, All-New iPhone 17 Model Rumored, and More

Saturday May 25, 2024 6:00 am PDT by
It's been quite a week of Apple news and rumors, ranging from a concerning bug with deleted photos reappearing on users' devices to hot rumors about a new high-end iPhone model for 2025 and a MacBook with a foldable screen coming as soon as 2026. Other news and rumors this week included fresh expectations for iOS 18 features and new headphones from Sonos to compete head-to-head with AirPods...

Top Rated Comments

3N16MA Avatar
160 months ago
"Don't be evil."
Score: 36 Votes (Like | Disagree)
newagemac Avatar
160 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
160 months ago
It's like Google is trying to become nothing more than adware or something.

:rolleyes:
Score: 31 Votes (Like | Disagree)
jon1987 Avatar
160 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
160 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
160 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)