Google's tracking of Safari users could lead to FTC investigation

Google’s alleged circumvention of do-not-track controls on Apple’s Safari browser could lead to big fines from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission if the agency determines that Google has violated a privacy settlement the company agreed to in March, according to privacy advocates.

Violations of a settlement with the FTC can lead to fines of $11,000 per incident. It’s unclear how many times Google may have circumvented Safari’s do-not-track protection; the browser ships with both iOS and Mac devices, and is available for PC users to download.

Google was “incredibly stupid” to slip tracking cookies into Safari, given that the company is under scrutiny by both the FTC and privacy advocates, said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “I’d be very surprised if there was not some type of FTC action.”

An FTC spokeswoman didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment on the privacy allegations.

On Friday, Stanford University graduate student Jonathan Mayer published information about Google and three other companies that skirted Safari’s do-not-track preferences. In response, Google released a statement noting that the work-around used legal code and that the company had not intended to invade user privacy.

Even if Google installed tracking cookies inadvertently, that could lead to problems with the FTC, Bookman said. “Technological work-arounds to evade browser privacy settings are unacceptable,” he added.

Consumer Watchdog, a privacy advocate that has been critical of Google in the past, called on the FTC to investigate the company for unfair and deceptive business practices.

“They have been lying about how people can protect their privacy in their instructions about how to opt out of receiving targeted advertising,” said John Simpson, the group’s privacy project director. “Consumer Watchdog has asked the FTC to act because this clearly violates Google’s consent agreement with the commission.” The incident also shows the need for the U.S. Congress to pass do-not-track legislation, Simpson added.

Google has had several run-ins with privacy issues in the past, with Street View cars snooping on Wi-Fi networks, and sharing personal information on its ill-fated Buzz social-networking service—which resulted in last year’s FTC settlement.

“In its rush to gather more data on users to boost its marketing revenues, and fight off competition from Facebook, Google has sidelined the privacy implications,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy group. “There’s a pattern in Google behavior that reveals a company in hot pursuit of a user’s data.”

Chester rejected Google’s explanation that it wasn’t collecting personal data from Safari users. “They know very well that such behavioral targeting cookies are tied to unique individuals and reveal important personal information,” he said.

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