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An update on The Great Google Cookie Scare of 2012

The advertising arm of Google is getting a lot of heat lately about tracking people who use Apple's Safari and Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browsers.

Besides being the company behind the famous search engine, a growing social network, a web email system and YouTube, Google runs a large online advertising company. The advertising arm of Google is getting a lot of heat lately about tracking people who use Apple's Safari and Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browsers.

The issue first came to light last week when Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer posted his findings -- later picked up by The Wall Street Journal -- saying that Google, along with other ad companies, were circumventing privacy protections on Safari. Mayer said that Google was putting a cookie on those browsers. A cookie, in this context, is “like a barcode that's slapped on your web browser,” says Mayer. Safari does allow for some cookies to be placed on users but only from the site that they’re actually visiting. So if you go to amazon.com, Safari will accept a cookie for Amazon so that Amazon recognizes you when you come back to use it again. What Safari is not supposed to accept is advertising cookies, and that’s what Mayer says was getting slipped in there by Google.

“So let's say you go to the New York Times and there's a Google ad that loads on side of page,” he explains. “Google learns about that, and then you go to the NPR page, and there's a Google ad on the side, it learns about that, and you go read your local newspaper, you go look up some sports scores, you name it. Any place a Google ad shows up, Google is able to associate your viewing that webpage with the other web pages you viewed that had Google ads on them.”

What that means for you and me is that Google can custom tailor ads that are more compelling to you and therefore more effective. “So how they're using it for now is to be able to show whether your friends liked an ad, so you can see little pictures of your friends on an ad if they hit the +1 button on it,” Mayer explains. “Of course, the technology could be used for further social personalization of ads. For example, if you go onto Google's social networking site Google+ and say you're a car enthusiast, this technology would enable Google to show car ads to you on other websites.”

There’s now a class action lawsuit against Google from a group of Safari users.

The issue with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser came up after Microsoft engineers read about the Safari situation. Microsoft concluded that it too was a victim of Google’s sneaky cookie placement. But Mayer says the Internet Explorer situation is not as bad. “The privacy feature on Internet Explorer is rightly characterized as somewhat antiquated,” he says. “It's a feature that was predicated on a web technology that's largely no longer used.”

For its part, Google says it’s doing nothing wrong with either Internet Explorer or Safari.

“The legal conclusion is still up in the air,” says Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University School of Law. “Unquestionably, Google's practices were at best sloppy, and at worst, illegal, but there's also the possibility that even if it's not illegal, it was unethical, and that's a possible conclusion irrespective of the legal analysis.”

And if it’s any comfort to you, Google isn’t keeping track of your name as you travel around the web. “It doesn't really  matter that it's John Moe or Eric Goldman, it only matters what we're doing and what we're interested in. That is much more valuable than knowing the person's name,” says Goldman.

Also in this program, another installment of Tech Report Theater. We travel into the future, all the way to later on this year, when a burger costs $316,000. Why so much? This is a burger made out of meat that was never part of an actual animal.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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