Google Promises to Cooperate with Safari-Related Privacy Probes
March 18, 2012

Google Promises to Cooperate with Safari-Related Privacy Probes

Google, who last month admitted to bypassing the privacy setting of Apple's Safari Web browser, has pledged to cooperate with American and European probes into their actions, according to UPI reports published on Saturday.

According to the wire service's reports, the Mountain View, California-based tech giant could be facing "steep fines" for cookies that "circumvented firewalls" in order to "allow the company to track a user's online activities," including the placement of a button that would allow users to recommend some of their ads as helpful.

Bloomberg's Sara Forden and Jeff Bliss wrote on Friday that an unidentified spokesperson claims that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in the process of checking to see if the planting of those cookies and the bypassing of Safari's security settings fell under the agency's jurisdiction to protect consumers from "unfair and deceptive" practices.

"The FTC also is looking at whether Google violated a consent decree with the commission signed last year," the source told Forden and Bliss. "That settlement was reached after Google agreed it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policies in introducing the Buzz social-networking service in 2010. The 20- year settlement bars Google from misrepresenting how it handles user information and requires the company to follow policies that protect consumer data in new products."

If they are found to be in violation of that agreement, they could face a fine of $16,000 per violation per day, said Julia Anguin of The Wall Street Journal. That could add up to be a rather hefty penalty, as Anguin reported that millions of people were potentially affected by the use of these minute tracking files on computers and/or mobile devices. She contacted the FTC for comment, but they declined to discuss the potential investigation.

Meanwhile, three state attorneys general are also investigating the issue, according to Mike Swift of Swift said that the Connecticut state attorney general's office confirmed on Friday that they were looking into the Safari privacy issues, while sources told him that the state attorneys general of New York and Maryland were also considering similar action.

Representatives from the New York and Maryland offices declined Swift's requests for comment, but Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Matthew Fitzsimmons told the Mercury News that they "have some concerns" and were "looking into it." Fitzsimmons, the leader of a Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen's four-person Internet privacy taskforce, declined to discuss which state laws might have been broken, according to Swift.

"In Europe, the French Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés, or CNIL, has added the Safari circumvention technique to its existing pan-European investigation into Google's privacy-policy changes, according to a person close to the investigation," Anguin said. "The CNIL is the agency that levied a 100,000 ($130,960) fine on Google last year for collecting passwords and other personal information when Google vehicles were gathering information for its Street View map service."

Google spokesperson Chris Gaither told Bloomberg, "We will of course cooperate with any officials who have questions. But it's important to remember that we didn't anticipate this would happen, and we have been removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."