Google’s unhealthy cookie habit

February 22, 2012

Google got its hand caught in the cookie jar last week — and this time it really does have some explaining to do.

The search giant, which derives some 97 percent of its revenues from advertising, thought it would be all right to circumvent some protections incorporated into Apple’s Safari browser so that it could better target its ads. By intentionally bypassing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser — and, as Microsoft has now asserted, Internet Explorer — Google has decided for all of us that our Web activity will be more closely tracked. They opted us in, without asking. And without a way for us to opt out. (We didn’t even know about it until the Wall Street Journal blew the lid off this last Thursday.)

On the merits, this is a pretty big deal. A class action has already been filed, and an FTC probe is almost certain. That the no-tracking settings were circumvented (and secretly) makes it easier to infer that even Google worried it might be touching a third rail. It says it wasn’t, that its intent was only to discern whether Google users were logged into Google services and that the enabling of advertising cookies was inadvertent.

But the atmospherics are horrible:

  • Google is the company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t be Evil.”
  • Google and Apple already have a pretty tortured relationship. Secretly deploying an exploit for an Apple product isn’t exactly a good-faith gesture.
  • Google only a month ago got some props for putting the best face possible on a big change in its privacy rules under which it now aggregates information gathered about you from one Google service with that collected from all the others you might use.

That last point in particular frames the bigger problem: We, the general Internet-using public, have an innately uneasy relationship with the “free” services we use. We vaguely understand that we are being spied upon — how else could Amazon and Netflix make such darn good suggestions? — and more or less see it as a reasonable trade-off. Then we try not to think about all the consequences of this new world order.

But this relationship is based on trust and on the ability of the big companies, that for immense profit bathe themselves in ever-deepening pools of our not-so-personal details, to keep convincing us that it’s all good. Some of them — like Google – take in sums approaching $40 billion a year, while others fancy themselves $100 billion companies — like Facebook — based on this uniquely digital-age business model: We are not only the customers, but the product.

Honestly now, nobody should be expected to understand how cookies and referrers and Adsense work. We shouldn’t have to worry about the clues and signals and anonymized information that the quants at Internet behemoths scrape so they can raise money from marketers to reach us and use that money to invent incredible, world-altering things.

But when a company like Google does something like covertly breaking though a data firewall — however righteous Google suggests the action might have been — the delicate trust imperative is jarred.

By definition, trust fills a vacuum created by the absence of verifiable facts — that is, not actually knowing for certain what the person is doing. You tell your spouse you’re working late, and if you’ve earned the right, she believes you. She doesn’t check up, doesn’t call your office line, doesn’t activate the “Find Your Friends” function secretly enabled on your iPhone.

You screw that up, and everything you do is suddenly questionable.

The line that Google crossed may not be an absolutely terrible one, and the whole affair might have been avoided — say, by being transparent. As Wired‘s Ryan Singel explains in mercifully understandable detail, it might even be argued that Safari is thwarting what we want — or at least not presenting us with a real-time opportunity to decide if Google’s going after that information was all right with us.

But Google will have a tough time making itself seem like a white knight and defender of best practices, primarily because it strayed down Evil Road.

And that leaves one wondering now: What is Google really up to when it says it’s working late?

6 comments

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Very, very well put. Some cookies today are almost immortal; like the “bad penny” you can’t get rid of. Some sites’ place electronic spies on your computer that “phone home” when you connect to the internet, and can conceivably spy on what you do while you’re not and then forward that information in a quick “burst”.

A “consumer” can’t “opt out” if they can’t tell when their activity is being monitored. We are not given a voice here, just as we were not given, initially, a voice in unsolicited telephone sales calls.

Our “right to privacy” has ever been an ever-expanding challenge, but nobody promised easy. There must be an agreed definition of “privacy”. There must be some hard and fast limits as to what may and may not be done without our permission.

Whose job is that of all the bureaucrats we pay for, and is their task and responsibilities clearly defined? If not that needs to be a priority or there will be no privacy left to protect. Big Brother will be here!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I seem to remember a thing called free-to-air television, that operated along the same “uniquely digital-age” business model — the viewers were the product, the consumers were sold to the customers.
Of course the constant profiling done by Google and its competitors is much more pernicious and increasingly pervasive — it is nasty, it is nefarious, at least for those of us who value the sovereignty of the individual, and the fact that in the future we may wish to change our attitudes, change our beliefs, change our minds, change our selves (that is, those of us who try to personally moderate the monopolistic tendencies of the search engine industry)

Posted by tangogo68 | Report as abusive

Maybe they simply figured that anyone who genuinely cared about these issues already had one of the at least three ad-blockers available for Safari installed?

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive

I really don’t think that the majority of individuals care because they cannot fathom the amount of data collected, nor what the impact may bring in the future.

The irony is; We live in Utopia and trust everything else but our own neighbor, but we don’t care about him either. In short it makes life easier and sweeter looking, Be Happy – Don’t worry, all while the clock ticks.

Posted by DDavid | Report as abusive

I share John Abell’s concerns. Sometimes I am enthusiastic about the intent and constraint of Google and Obama with huge government files and expansion; other times I am quite apprehensive about what happens now. I feel I went thru a common evolution with these guys to the present–that they have SOME restraint. What happens in the next few generations, as less scrupulous folks share the same access to fantastic amounts of data about everyone… I bet already the dossiers on all the #Occupy folks around the country are thicker than phone books. And as for you…and your children… and what they wrote on Facebook at the party last night…

Posted by newsfreq | Report as abusive

@ tangogo68 Actually, the TV analogy doesn’t really work well — even if you are a Nielsen family. It’s one thing to be part of an audience, especially when the audience is a extrapolation of a small subset of homes which are self-reporting. It’s another to have your every move monitored and logged. Google and Facebook (et al) don’t just need members — ie, an audience. They need that audience to share, not just show up. To me, that is a huge difference and a business model unique to these times.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive