Microsoft denounces Google for bypassing Safari privacy settings

The company's heavy-handed, but potentially effective, PR assault on Google heats up based on a WSJ report that Google sneaked past Safari's privacy settings.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Microsoft is clearly looking for any ammunition it can find to criticize Google and win over Internet users.

Today, Microsoft seized on a Wall Street Journal report that Google sidestepped privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser to track Internet users. The Journal story said the search giant and other ad companies used special code to get around Safari's privacy controls in order to track users on computers and mobile devices.

"Apparently, Google has been able to track users of Apple's Safari browser while they surf the web on their Apple iPhones, iPads and Macs," Ryan Gavin, General Manager for Internet Explorer Business and Marketing, wrote in a blog posted today. "This type of tracking by Google is not new. The novelty here is that Google apparently circumvented the privacy protections built into Apple's Safari browser in a deliberate, and ultimately, successful fashion."

Beyond getting in yet another dig at Google over privacy concerns, Gavin took the opportunity to tout Microsoft's own Internet Explorer browser.

Of course, Microsoft is also criticizing Safari for apparently being vulnerable enough to let Google bypass its security settings. Microsoft did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.

But Gavin essentially also asserts that Internet Explorer wouldn't have been compromised by Google's code as was Safari. Of course, he didn't mention that IE isn't available on Macs or on Apple's mobile devices, which renders his point largely moot.

Google has also maintained its innocence in the whole affair, calling the Journal story a mischaracterization of what happened and why.

In a statement sent to CNET and attributed to Rachel Whetstone, Google's senior vice president for Communications and Public Policy, the company said it used known functionality in Safari to provide features that Google users had enabled. Further, the advertising cookies generated did not collect personal information, Google added.

Unlike other major browsers, Apple's Safari browser blocks third-party cookies by default. However, Safari enables many web features for its users that rely on third parties and third-party cookies, such as 'Like' buttons. Last year, we began using this functionality to enable features for signed-in Google users on Safari who had opted to see personalized ads and other content--such as the ability to '+1' things that interest them.

To enable these features, Google said it had to create a temporary link between its own servers and Safari. But Apple's browser had certain functionality that allowed other Google advertising cookies to be generated. Google added that it didn't expect this to happen, and the company has started removing the cookies in question from Safari browsers.

So Google also seems to be pinning at least some of the blame on Safari.

Still, the main battle, as always, is between Microsoft and Google.

The two companies have recently  traded virtual blows on a variety of fronts. Microsoft recently pounced on its rival over the search giant's proposed changes to its privacy policies, asserting that Hotmail and Office 365 are safer and more secure than the alternatives offered by Google.

Updated 9:30 a.m. PT with statement from Google.