Google Takes Apple Users on a Surfing Safari - 'Private Eyes are Watching You'


As I noted in an article on start-up Personal a few days ago, the issue of the value and access to personal information is emerging as one of the most important challenges of our time. The issue erupted again today with an exhaustive and extremely illuminating story in the Wall Street Journal

The posting says  that Google and other companies have been bypassing privacy settings for people using Apple iPhones and computers who use the Apple Safari browser as the way for navigating the web. The bypass enables Google, and others who know about the bypass ability, to get around Safari’s default setting to block such activities in order to track user surfing activities in ways that are both deeply personal and appear at odds with Google’s own privacy guidelines.

According to the WSJ, Google disabled its code after the media company said it was writing about the practices which also are being used in similar fashion by Vibrant Media Inc., WPP PLC’s Media Innovation Group LLC and Gannett Co.’s PointRoll Inc. WSJ was made aware of the practice by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer (and confirmed it with their in-house advisor Ashkan Soltani) who found widespread use of Google tracking for ads on top websites which once activated could give Google reach into surfing history onto most websites.

Google’s explanation for all of this was that: “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.” Very convenient but reality is they supposedly stopped. They also did not apologize or explain what they might be doing with the data they have already collected.

Google of course is no stranger to privacy concerns. As the article points out, last year in its agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Google agreed not to misrepresent its privacy practices to consumers or it would face huge fines. 

And, in just past few days, the European Union’s Article 29 Working Party, the umbrella organization that includes 27 data protection authorities in the EU and has jurisdiction over such things, sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page asking for more time to study the company’s policy update. The reason is that back in January, Google announced it would be “simplifying” its privacy policies as of March 1 so that Google can treat its users as a single individual across all of its products and services — YouTube, Chrome, Google Docs, Google+, Gmail, etc.   

While Google’s intent on simplification is practical on its face, it has really raised red flags around the world out of fear this will emerge as “big brother” behavior at its worst. Plus, for those unaware, not only are there lots of bills in the U.S. calling for better protection of personal data when on the Internet, but Europe has much stiffer rules than most of the world regarding personal privacy already, and regulators take this very seriously. As Article 29 Chairman Jacob Kohnstamm said in his letter to Page, “We call for a pause [in the new privacy policy roll out] in the interests of ensuring that there can be no misunderstanding about Google’s commitments to information rights of their users and EU citizens.”

But wait there is more!

Google may be taking the heat right now but it is just one example of how “big data” being used/abused. In fact, for some food for thought on all of this I would put yesterday’s article by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” on your must read list. Reality is that the Internet has created a golden age for marketers. In fact, their biggest problem is not in collecting data but in analyzing it so marketers can better predict and manipulate our transactional behavior. Recent studies have predicted a massive short fall of people skilled in predictive analytics. If you have a child pondering where the jobs of the future are going to be this is it. There literally are going to be millions of positions available for behaviorists.  

Where all of this is going is problematic. What is apparent is that the laws governing the usage of personal information are woefully inadequate for the data genie that is forever out of the bottle. The balance between what is mine versus what can be yours is unclear. “Big data”properly crunched is the accelerant of e-commerce. Part of me thinks this is a good thing. However, you might also want to read a posting in the New York Times again by Joshua Brustein, “At Fashion Week, a Peek at a New Tactic for Marketers.” The article describes technology from Sonic Notify, that listens for specific sound waves which are synched to certain items that can then be brought up on you smartphone. 

I invite you to read the entire piece. For a quick mental image, think of this as you are walking past a Coke machine and it sends you a message that says, “10 percent off if you feed me right now!” Think of the fact that the data from you passing by, whether you make a purchase or not, is then sent off to Coke for analysis and shared possibly with other merchants in the neighborhood. 

As I argued previously, I believe I should be in control of my data and actually should be able to parse it out and charge those who want it an access fee. Yes, I realize that things like Google, Facebook and Twitter cannot provide access to their semi-public commons and all of the associated services without a means to generate money. Yes, I am fully aware that this means advertising as witnessed by the fact that Google still gets more than 90 percent of its revenues from ads. And, yes it is a pipe dream to think there will be a consumer revolt over the use of our personal information that would be a game-changer and allow us to get a piece of the action. However, there must be a balance struck going forward between surfers and wave makers. 

I used to believe that a simple opt-out as the default on privacy rather than opt-in was a reasonable fix for my paranoia. “Caveat emptor,” e.g., “buyer beware,” where we are all responsible and accountable for our choices in theory should be good enough while we wait for the law to catch up. What Google’s bypass of Apple’s default shows that I was naïve. Since the European regulators seem to justifiably share this paranoia, it will be interesting to see what concessions they extract from Google.  

Finally, for those lovers of oldies, it seems that watching and listening to the Hall & Oats classic song “Private Eyes“ would be a nice way to celebrate the President’s Day holiday in the U.S. As the song refrain says, “Private eyes are watching you. They see your every move. Private eyes are watching you. Private eyes. They’re watching you watching you watching you watching you.”   

Peter Bernstein is a technology industry veteran, having worked in multiple capacities with several of the industry's biggest and best known brands, and has served on the Advisory Boards of 15 technology startups. To read more of Peter's work, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell
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