Google has been caught circumventing iOS's built-in anti-ad-tracking features in order to add Google Plus functionality within iPhone's Safari browser. The WSJ reports that Google overrode users' privacy settings in order to allow messages like "your friend Suzy +1'ed this ad about candy" to be relayed between Google's different domains, including google.com and doubleclick.net. This also meant that doubleclick.net was tracking every page you landed on with a Doubleclick ad, even if you'd opted out of its tracking.
I believe that Google has created an enormous internal urgency about Google Plus integration, and that this pressure is leading the company to take steps to integrate G+ at the expense of the quality of its other services. Consider the Focus on the User critique of Google's "social ranking" in search results, for example. In my own life, I've been immensely frustrated that my unpublished Gmail account (which I only use to anchor my Android Marketplace purchases for my phone and tablets, and to receive a daily schedule email while I'm travelling) has somehow become visible to G+ users, so that I get many, many G+ updates and invites to this theoretically private address, every day, despite never having opted into a directory and never having joined G+.
In the iPhone case, it's likely that Google has gone beyond lowering the quality of its service for its users and customers, and has now started to violate the law, and certainly to undermine the trust that the company depends on. This is much more invasive than the time Google accidentally captured some WiFi traffic and didn't do anything with it, much more invasive than Google taking pictures of publicly visible buildings -- both practices that drew enormous and enduring criticism at the expense of the company's global credibility. I wonder if this will cause the company to slow its full-court press to make G+ part of every corner of Google.
EFF has an open letter to Google, asking them to make amends for this:
It’s time for a new chapter in Google’s policy regarding privacy. It’s time to commit to giving users a voice about tracking and then respecting those wishes.
For a long time, we’ve hoped to see Google respect Do Not Track requests when it acts as a third party on the Web, and implement Do Not Track in the Chrome browser. This privacy setting, available in every other major browser, lets users express their choice about whether they want to be tracked by mysterious third parties with whom they have no relationship. And even if a user deleted her cookies, the setting would still be there.
Right now, EFF, Google, and many other groups are involved in a multi-stakeholder process to define the scope and execution of Do Not Track through the Tracking Protection Working Group. Through this participatory forum, civil liberties organizations, advertisers, and leading technologists are working together to define how Do Not Track will give users a meaningful way to control online tracking without unduly burdening companies. This is the perfect forum for Google to engage on the technical specifications of the Do Not Track signal, and an opportunity to bring all parties together to fight for user rights. While the Do Not Track specification is not yet final, there's no reason to wait. Google has repeatedly led the way on web security by implementing features long before they were standardized. Google should do the same with web privacy. Get started today by linking Do Not Track to your existing opt-out mechanisms for advertising, +1, and analytics.
Google, make this a new era in your commitment to defending user privacy. Commit to offering and respecting Do Not Track.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.