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UK Users Sue Google Over Safari Tracking

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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A group of users have begun coordinating legal actions against Google over its alleged tracking of desktop and mobile Safari users

Google is being sued in the UK by users of Apple’s Safari browser over the search giant’s alleged tracking of desktop and mobile users in a row that began last February. and seemed to be concluded last summer.

The incident started when the Wall Street Journal learned from Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer that Google and other advertising companies were allegedly bypassing Safari’s security settings in order to track user activity via cookies. Safari is designed to block such tracking by default.

Advert tracking

Google disabled the code, which was placed via its DoubleClick advertising network, after being contacted by the Journal, but the report led the US’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to fine Google $22.5m (£14.4m) as part of a settlement over the issue last summer. The settlement allowed Google to conclude the matter with the FTC without admitting liability.

At the time the company said the cookies had not colleted personal information and said it is committed to the “highest standards of privacy and security”.

Now a group of UK Safari users has instructed law firm Olswang to coordinate their claims against Google over the issue, the law firm said in a statement on Sunday. Launching the claim in coordination with Data Privacy Day on Monday, the group has published a Facebook page and is calling for anyone who was a Safari user between September 2011 and February 2012 to join the lawsuit.

Olswang said it is seeking damages, disclosure and an apology from Google.

“Google has a responsibility to consumers and should be accountable for the trust placed in them,” stated Olswang partner Dan Tench. “We hope that they will take this opportunity to give Safari users a proper explanation about what happened, to apologise and, where appropriate, compensate the victims of their intrusion.”

Growing list of users

Tench said there are at least 10 users involved in the lawsuit to begin with, with more preparing to join. He told The Guardian that the action is the first time Google has been presented with a group claim over privacy in the UK.

Privacy activist Alexander Hanff said the damages involved could surpass £100m, given the large number of British Safari users during the period, estimated at 10 million users.

“This has the potential of being the biggest ever group action filed in the UK, with millions of potential claimants,” he said in a message on Twitter.

The first claimant to issue proceedings is Judith Vidal-Hall, a privacy campaigner and the former editor of Index on Censorship.

“Google claims it does not collect personal data but doesn’t say who decides what information is ‘personal’,” the firm quoted Vidal as saying. “Whether something is private or not should be up to the internet surfer, not Google.”

‘Deliberate’ tracking

On its Facebook page, the group said 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. There was no way to know that Google did this.”

The group added that Google had in fact provided inaccurate information stating that it did not track Safari users.

Google has come under high-profile attacks for its treatment of users’ privacy in the past, notably over its policies regarding the failed Google Buzz service and the collection of Wi-Fi data by StreetView cars.

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