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Harvard Reacts to Google Breaches

By TARAS B. DRESZER, Contributing Writer

The recent discovery of a privacy concern at Google has led the director of a Harvard center focused on the societal implications of the internet to call for increased attention to online security.

The security concern arose when a Stanford researcher said that Google was using a loophole in Apple’s Safari web browser to monitor user data on computers and iPhones, even when users indicated in their software preferences that they wanted monitoring blocked on their devices.

Google Inc., which receives revenue from its online advertising, gathers data from web browsing histories in order to target advertisements to user tastes.

Google commonly installs small files called cookies that can tell when users are logged in to Google sites. Ordinarily, Safari blocks this tracking method by default.

However, according to The Wall Street Journal, Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mayer found that Google was circumventing Safari’s default blocking by adding coding to some of its ads.

The coding tricked the Safari browser into thinking a user interacted with a Google advertisement in a manner similar to filling out an online form—thus allowing for the installation of previously blocked cookies.

In a statement quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Google said, “The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It’s important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”

Google already faced criticism for overstepping privacy boundaries. Last year, the technology behemoth reached a separate settlement over privacy concerns with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Urs Gasser, executive director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said that the most recent scrutiny of Google’s privacy policies will serve as a precedent for handling internet tracking concerns.

“Google is taking a rather aggressive approach and is pushing the envelope quite a bit to figure out how far it can go when collecting data,” Gasser said. “Having players involved who are willing to take the risk to end up in court, [and in] the court of public opinion, is not always a bad thing. Stories like [this one] may have an educational effect for everybody involved in the long run.”

In particular, Gasser said that citizens should educate themselves about the security risks they face online.

“I don’t think any of us, even experts, are really informed about the privacy details of every service we use. It’s too much information,” he said.

Regardless of any privacy concerns, loyalty to Google remains strong among many users.

“I really like Google. I really like the products they create, [and] they all have very nice user interfaces,” said Lucia Mocz ’13, a mathematics and computer science concentrator.

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