Google Sneaks Browser Cookies, Tracks Users

Dennis Faas's picture

Microsoft has accused Google of ignoring the privacy settings on browsers. Google says it's all a misunderstanding, but politicians have suggested there could be legal consequences.

The dispute centers on web browser cookies, which are small text files a website sends to a user's computer, intended to provide information to various sites for customizing the user's online experiences.

However, cookies can also be used to track a web user's online activity. To prevent this, most browsers allow users to limit the acceptance of cookies. For Apple's Safari, the default setting accepts cookies only from a website itself, not from companies providing advertisements on the site.

Google Abuse May Be Widespread

Following a tip-off from a Stanford researcher, the Wall Street Journal discovered that Google sites are bypassing some default limitations on cookies.

Using Safari to visit the 100 most popular websites, the researcher found 22 cases where Google-provided advertisements successfully delivered cookies. (Source:

It turns out Google is exploiting an exception to the cookie rule, intentionally using code that fools the browser into permitting cookies where they should not be allowed.

Google admits this, but says it isn't trying to collect personal data, only attempting to identify registered Google users so it can provide them with useful tools, such as a special recommendations button.

Internet Explorer Users Could Also Be Affected

Microsoft is now accusing Google of carrying out similar tactics, leaving unwanted cookies on machines running Internet Explorer, which normally blocks them.

According to Microsoft, Google is providing a coded statement to Internet Explorer that fools the browser into giving the cookie the benefit of the doubt. (Source:

Three members of the House of Representatives have raised the issue with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They've noted that after previous claims of privacy violations, Google settled a government investigation with a consent decree, a legally binding agreement which included a promise by Google that it wouldn't misrepresent its policies and actions when it came to online privacy.

The politicians claim that, until mid February, Google's own site specifically told Safari users they could rely on the browser's default settings to avoid being tracked. If the FTC decides that statement was misleading or false, Google could face hefty financial penalties.

Google has since disabled its code after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal. (Source:

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