Google is in trouble again. After a Stanford graduate student discovered that cookies were being attached to users’ Safari Web browser last month, Google has drawn the attention of regulators in both the U.S. and the European Union. On Friday, the Washington Post stated that new investigations may be underway.

The original Wall Street Journal article in February explained that Google was using special computer codes to install tiny tracking files, or “cookies,” on computers, iPhones and iPads, regardless of security measures installed to block this kind of tracking. Since the newspaper released the story, Google assured the public it disabled the code that was bypassing the privacy settings. According to the company, the attachment of cookies was inadvertant, though it admitted it had linked Safari browsers to its servers to see if account holders were signed into their requested services. Google has not confirmed whether new investigations are undergoing, saying only: “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.”

Google may be facing years of legal battles and serious fines with these violations. One of the primary organizations currently investigating Google is the Federal Trade Commission. Just last year Google reached a settlement with the government in which they pledged not to “misrepresent” their privacy practices to consumers. If the FTC finds that Google has violated the agreement, the company faces $16,000 in fines, per day. With millions of users affected, this fine could grow to an insurmountable sum.

Other investigations include a group of state attorneys and the French Commission Nationale de L’Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL). The state attorney generals are capable of charging fines of up to $5,000 per violation if Google is found liable of circumventing privacy settings. The CNIL has added this charge of circumvention to its existing investigation of Google’s privacy-policy changes. Last year, the CNIL levied a fine of $130,960 on Google for using passwords and other personal information for its Street View service.

Like many companies, Google relies on funding that comes from online ads. The investigations in both the U.S. and Europe have revealed that the rivalry between Google and Facebook has been difficult for Google. Despite its popularity, Google has faced many difficulties with its privacy policies which may come to affect the popularity of its services. Using cookies to track information allows for more targeted ads, which attracts a premium from much sought after advertisers. But as Google becomes more deeply involved in these investigations, the extent of its intrusion may not just lead to heavy fines- it may also lead to a loss of loyalty among consumers who feel that their trust has been violated.

Gingie Yetter

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4 Responses to Is Google Watching You?

  1. Nick B. says:

    Your personal privacy is not in Google’s interest but Google really must convince you it is. Instead, selling your personal privacy is in their interest. It is no surprise that they are being caught “accidently” tracking people.

    But even if this was intentional, the amount of liability Google may face seems unreasonable. I’m sure some type of agreement will have to be reached. I don’t think anyone could afford that type of liabiltiy, even the cash rich Google.

    Nick

  2. Megan says:

    I have to agree with Katie that the number of “unintentional” incidents Google is having with users’ private information makes me doubt how accidental these incidents really are. As the post noted, Google has a strong motivation to avoid losing consumers’ trust– but just because they claim they had no idea the cookies were being attached doesn’t convince me that they didn’t.

  3. Ilana says:

    Although I don’t purport to agree with Google’s actions, I think there are also some benefits of using cookies to track users on the web. For example, it allows Google to provide targeted advertising to users who will be most interested in the subject of the ad, rather than inundating all Google users with ads that would be relevant to only 0.5% of users.

  4. Katie Brown says:

    This isn’t the first time I have heard about Google claiming that it was an “accident” to view users’ private information. In an earlier Google snafu, the company’s Street View trikes were caught intercepting personal information sent over users’ open Wi-Fi networks, which Google also claimed was inadvertent. Given Google’s private interest in gaining as much user data as is technologically possible, and its public relations need to assure users that any unauthorized access was unintentional, I have to wonder if this pattern is just part of Google’s way of doing business.