I’m probably supposed to be mortified by Google’s latest privacy blunder. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google found a loophole in Apple’s Safari browser — both on desktops and iOS devices — that allowed the search giant to track users across the web using cookies. By default, Apple doesn’t allow this kind of tracking, but Google found an exception in the rules and exploited it, just so the company could integrate Google+ with its web ads.
As Danny Sullivan points out at Marketing Land, the Journal‘s headline is more sensational than it should be. The phrase “Google’s iPhone Tracking” is reminiscent of the location tracking brouhaha that erupted last year, but location isn’t the issue here. And considering that most desktop browsers allow third-party tracking cookies by default, lots of people who don’t use Safari were already subjected to tracking by Google and other companies.
But that’s not why I’m indifferent. With this incident, Google’s goal was to ensure that when you saw certain ads, you’d see a +1 button alongside them. As far as privacy violations go, I rank that pretty low on the list of offenses. Same goes for the general hysteria around tracking cookies, which reached its peak in 2010 when the Journal revealed that major ad networks follow you around the web. It sounds scary, but the result — more relevant advertisements — is fairly innocuous.
To me, the worst privacy offenses are the ones that could affect your actual life. When Facebook made sweeping privacy changes in 2009, for example, it left some users unaware that they were sharing much more information with strangers than they thought. Or when retailers handed customer e-mail addresses to a third party that failed to protect itself against hackers, the result was a greater danger of being phished via e-mail.
If you’re going to get upset with Google’s web tracking, you have to get upset with the entire system. The reality is that data mining is the norm, and unless you’ve taken a dozen precautions, odds are that marketing companies already know plenty about you. (Buried in the Journal‘s story, for that matter, is the fact that three online ad companies were using the same loophole as Google to track Safari users around the web.) Even offline businesses are doing questionable things with your data, such as Target, which revealed a girl’s pregnancy to her family because of what she’d bought at the store.
I gave up on trying to be an anonymous web surfer long ago, and I can’t say my life is any different for it. Did Google screw up by using underhanded tactics to further its own goals? Absolutely, and as a tech writer, that’s interesting. As an ordinary web user, though, I couldn’t care less.