Google faces UK legal claims over alleged infringements of Safari users' privacy

Out-Law News | 29 Jan 2013 | 11:31 am | 3 min. read

Google ignored privacy settings on a website browser built by rival Apple and tracked the online movements of that browser's users in order to serve them with targeted adverts based on the information it gleaned, according to a new legal claim facing the company.

According to a report by the Daily Telegraph 12 individuals have so far put their names behind the claim and each of them used Apple devices. They claim Google used cookies to monitor their online behaviour and then displayed adverts based on that behaviour despite using settings in their 'Safari' browser being set to block such tracking, according to the report. Google has declined to comment.

Safari is Apple's own web browser and is set to block third-party cookies without any action from users. Although it produces versions for other computers, it is primarily used by owners of Apple's own Mac computers, iPhones and iPad tablets.

Privacy campaigner Judith Vidal-Hall is the first person in the UK to begin legal action against Google, according to a report by the BBC.

"Google claims it does not collect personal data but doesn't say who decides what information is 'personal'," Vidal-Hall said. "Whether something is private or not should be up to the internet surfer, not Google. We are best placed to decide, not them."

A new Facebook group, Safari Users Against Google's Secret Tracking, has been established to provide information on the issue to others in the UK who the group said could have the right to also claim for breach of privacy against Google. It said that anyone who used the Safari browser between September 2011 and February 2012 could potentially have been affected. The Guardian reported that there could be up to 10 million people in the UK who have grounds to make a claim.

"Google deliberately undermined protections on the Safari browser so that they could track users' internet usage and to provide personally tailored advertising based on the sites previously visited," the campaign group said on its Facebook page. "There was no way to know that Google did this. In fact, they made it clear that they did not do this on the Safari browser."

Last year Google paid a $22.5 million civil penalty to US consumer protection regulator the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle claims that it continued to override the privacy settings of users of Apple's Safari web browser – despite previous assurances given to the regulator that it would no longer do so.

The FTC said at the time that Google, which generates billions of dollars per year from selling online advertising and targeted advertising services, placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the devices of Safari users who visited sites within its 'DoubleClick' advertising network over the course of several months between 2011 and 2012. It did so despite having previously told these users that they would not have to take action to block these cookies as Safari's default privacy settings "effectively accomplished the same thing" as opting out, the FTC said.

Google reached a settlement with the FTC in October 2011 which, among other things, prevented it from "misrepresenting the extent to which consumers can exercise control over the collection of their information", the FTC said. That settlement related to Google's now defunct social networking service Google Buzz.

Google had claimed that its actions were unintentional, resulting from a change to the browser of which it had been unaware. It claimed that it stopped tracking Safari users and showing them personalised advertising once the issue was brought to its attention, according to the FTC's settlement.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) told Out-Law.com last year that the watchdog was "making enquiries with Google" to establish whether the way in which it serves cookies complies with UK law after complaints from a rival technology company.

Microsoft claimed that Google had been serving third-party cookies capable of tracking users' online behaviour even when those users had adjusted settings in the Internet Explorer browser to prevent it happening.

In an unrelated incident last July Google admitted to the ICO that did not delete all the information that it unlawfully obtained from open Wi-Fi networks from technology used by its Street View cars. At the time the ICO responded and said it would "examine the contents" of the information discovered by Google and warned that Google may have breached the terms of the undertakings it previously agreed following an investigation into the issue in 2010.