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Watchdogs quiz Google in Safari cookie-stalking probe

Privacy gaffe grabs FTC, CNIL attention

Regulators on both sides of the Pond are snapping on the surgical gloves after Google was caught bypassing privacy settings on Safari browsers.

People on the inside track have whispered to the Wall Street Journal that the US Federal Trade Commission and France's CNIL are now investigating the search'n'advertising giant over the web tracking.

A Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement that "it would, of course, cooperate with any officials who had questions".

Last month, Mountain View was outed after a Stanford researcher found out that it and other advertisers were using code that "tricked" the Safari browser into letting them track users online. Apple's browser is set to automatically stop cookie-tracking, but Google was still managing to follow punters all over the net.

After the news was broken by the WSJ, Google apologised and fixed the code.

The French Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL) is already probing Google over the recent changes to its privacy policy, which it claims is not meeting the requirements of the European Data Protection Directive.

Folks familiar with the matter said that the CNIL is now bundling Google's Safari issue in with the rest of its problems with the search giant. A spokesperson for CNIL could not be reached for comment.

The FTC and Google came to a legal agreement last year over Google Buzz privacy blunders. At that point, Google promised not to "misrepresent" its privacy practices to users again.

Now the FTC is looking into whether the Safari gaffe broke that agreement, a violation that could extract millions of dollars in fines from Mountain View. The commission can penalise Google $16,000 per violation per day, an amount that could quickly skyrocket due to the millions of Safari users affected.

However, to slap the Chocolate Factory with any crippling fines, the FTC would have to prove that Google ignored Safari's privacy settings on purpose. Google has said that the whole thing was a mistake.

"We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. 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 personalised ads and other content," the firm's spokesperson said.

"However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser. It's important to remember that we didn't anticipate this would happen, and we have been removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."

The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.

The WSJ also reported that a group of state attorney generals in the US, including New York's Eric Schneiderman and Connecticut's George Jepsen, are probing the Safari intrusion, according to people familiar with those investigations. ®

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