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.
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”.
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.”
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.”
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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