The Federal Trade Commission may levy its first multimillion dollar fine against Google over a security breach initially uncovered by a Stanford student, according to an anonymous source cited by Bloomberg.
The world’s largest search company originally found itself in hot water when Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student in law and computer science, detected “cookies” that were planted on Apple’s Safari Internet browser to evade built-in protections. This is how Mayer characterized the breach on a blog post, dated Feb. 17:
Apple’s Safari web browser is configured to block third-party cookies by default. We identified four advertising companies that unexpectedly place trackable cookies in Safari. Google and Vibrant Media intentionally circumvent Safari’s privacy feature.
By circumventing Safari’s privacy settings, Google could launch targeted adverting to Safari users on desktops, iPads, and iPhones. At the time, Google issued the comment that it “didn’t anticipate this would happen” and that it would promptly remove the offending files. Google’s spokesperson added that “these advertising cookies do not collect personal information.”
It’s now the job of the FTC, a body responsible for protecting Internet users, to determine the extent of Google’s wrongdoing. If convicted, the company could face fines amounting to over $10 million, according to the Bloomberg report. The FTC is stepping up its efforts to safeguard consumers’ online rights; this would be the first fine levied by the government agency.
The investigation puts the issue of Internet privacy firmly in the spotlight. Experts say a hefty fine could serve as a lesson to Internet companies around the world. “Silicon Valley Internet companies are in stiff competition and we will see these privacy issues pop up again and again unless regulators take a firm stance,” said Pieter Gunst, fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Legal Informatics (CodeX).
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