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

Privacy advocates say Google's circumvention of antitracking controls could violate a privacy settlement with the agency

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 Google has violated a privacy settlement the company agreed to in March, some privacy advocates said Friday.

Violations of a settlement with the FTC can lead to fines of US$11,000 per incident. It's unclear how many times Google may have circumvented do-not-track protections on the Safari browser, distributed with iPhones, iPads, some iPods and Macintosh computers.

Google was "incredibly stupid" to slip tracking cookies into Safari, given that the company is under scrutiny by 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 defeating Safari's do-not-track protections.

Google said it did not intentionally install tracking cookies. "We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled," Rachel Whetstone Google senior vice president for communications and public policy," said in a statement. "It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

Google designed a link between its servers and Safari browsers that allowed Google to collect anonymous information about users, Whetstone said.

"However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser," she added. "We didn't anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."

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, 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 shown a history of disregarding privacy concerns, with its Street View cars snooping on Wi-Fi networks, its sharing personal information on its ill-fated Buzz social-networking service, and now this, added Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy group.

"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," he said. "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.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?