FTC set to hand Google record $22.5m fine over Safari privacy breach

FTC set to hand Google record $22.5m fine over Safari privacy breach

Updated with comment from Google below.

Google is reportedly set to pay a $22.5 million fine in relation to the scandal that broke out when the company was found to have overridden Safari’s privacy settings, with the potential to track Internet browsing sessions.

The Wall Street Journal cites company officials “briefed on the settlement terms” who have revealed that the firm is in line to pay the highest fine that the FTC has ever imposed on a single company.

The fine is very much anticipated, and it was rumored to be “tens of millions” back in May, but the Mountain View-based firm will have little problem paying it as, going on last year’s finances, it amounts to five hours’ worth of revenue. However, more importantly, the issue places a further question mark on Google and its position on Web privacy.

The company has been criticised over its new privacy policy for users — which drew criticism from the EU, Japan and US authorities — while its continued promotion of one-year old social network Google+ through its mainstream services, including its search engines, continues to irk some Internet users.

At the time that the Safari security issue broke, Google said that it was performing the workaround on Safari browsers for those users who were signed in with their Google accounts, to make sure that they were seeing the appropriate personalised ads and had the ability to +1 things that they found interesting.

This is how the company explained the issue:

To enable these features, we created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google’s servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for this type of personalization. But we designed this so that the information passing between the user’s Safari browser and Google’s servers was anonymous–effectively creating a barrier between their personal information and the web content they browse.

However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser. We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers. It’s important to stress that, just as on other browsers, these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.

Google’s Chrome was recently found to be the world’s most used browser, according to Statcounter, while it moved onto Apple’s ‘lawn’ with the launch of Chrome for iOS. However, its iPhone and iPad browser does not enjoy native integration, which is reserved for Apple’s Safari mobile browser.

We’ve reached out to Google, and a company spokesperson provided us with the following comment:

We cannot comment on any specifics. However we do set the highest standards of privacy and security for our users. The FTC is focused on a 2009 help center page published more than two years before our consent decree, and a year before Apple changed its cookie-handling policy. We have now changed that page and taken steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers.

Image via Flickr / Danny Sullivan

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