Google under fire over secretly tracking users

Google logo over Ethernet cable
Search engine giant Google has been accused of using a code to monitor iPhone users all over the Internet.
CBS News

Some members of Congress are calling for an investigation of Google, after word came out the company has been tracking iPhone users all over the Internet -- even users who thought they blocked that kind of surveillance CBS News correspondent John Blackstone spoke with the man who uncovered what Google was doing.

Stanford University grad student Jonathan Meyer was doing research on Internet privacy, when he discovered the computer code that let Google bypass user privacy settings.

"The list just goes on and on," said Meyer.

"If you went to these sites and thought you were there privately, you weren't?" asked Blackstone.

"That's right," he said.

Google tracked iPhone users by cheating Safari

Most iPhone and iPad users access the Internet through Apple's Safari browser, which automatically sets up a barrier to keep out tracking programs from third-party advertisers. Google found a way to secretly get through that barrier, letting the advertisers flow in and tracking information flow out.

"The technology we were looking at involves taking what Google learned through organizing your information, and using that to enrich their advertising content on non-Google websites," said Meyer.

Blackstone posed a question: "Google's slogan: 'Do no evil.' Is this evil?

"I think it raises question about evil," said Meyer. "I hesitate to give a bright line response on the evil or not. I think if evil includes negligence and gross negligence, then this is evil."

In a statement, Google insists the tracking codes it planted "do not collect personal information." And that it "didn't anticipate this would happen" when it made changes to improve access to Google features on Safari.

Tracking user on-line habits is the most valuable information Internet companies and advertisers can get. John Simpson, a consumer advocate, said user preferences and information are what Google is selling. "Don't think of yourself as Google's customer, you are Google's product," he said.

Blackstone asked Meyer when he goes online, does he turn the privacy settings up full?

"For sure," Meyer replied. "I think it's pretty absurd. You shouldn't need a Ph.D. in computer science to protect yourself."

Meyer said his research at Stanford University shows that what we used to call spyware is now become standard business practice on the Internet. Also, Google said it has removed the code that created that privacy loophole.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.