FTC looking to fine Google for bypassing Safari users’ privacy

Following a report that claimed Google had been overriding Safari users’ privacy settings to set tracking code in order to collect web browsing habits, a newspaper story this morning asserts that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking a long, hard look at the search giant’s practice.

The FTC is said to be “deep into an investigation” of Google’s tactics of bypassing Apple’s security settings on both the desktop and iOS versions of Safari.

Apparently, they are looking to fine Google and the financial sanctions could be “sizable”, according to the obligatory people familiar with the matter.

San Jose Mercury News spoke to sources in the know:

Hard on the heels of being fined $25,000 for allegedly blocking a federal privacy investigation, Google is enmeshed in a second federal probe into its privacy practices that could soon bring a more painful hit to the search giant’s pocketbook, this newspaper has learned.

The Federal Trade Commission is deep into an investigation of Google’s actions in bypassing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser for Google users, according to sources familiar with ongoing negotiations between the company and the government.

People familiar with the case say millions of iPhone, iPad and Mac users could be affected by Google’s Safari tactics. The FTC could fine the Mountain View, California-headquartered search Goliath within the next 30 days, the newspaper wrote, and the financial sanctions “could be sizable”.

Google previously acknowledged it’s been tracking Safari users without their consent, disregarding their privacy settings. A spokesperson for the company said:

We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. We created a temporary communication link between Safari browsers and Google’s servers, so that we could ascertain whether Safari users were also signed into Google, and had opted for personalized ads and other content. However, the Safari browser contained functionality that then enabled other Google advertising cookies to be set on the browser.

I’d say Google will regret choosing to experiment with the more than 350 million iOS device owners worldwide. That’s a respectable user base by any measure so the search firm won’t be able to argue that its practices affected only a few thousand or million people.

Worse, because the FCC already sanctioned Google in the Street View case, the Safari case could result in an even larger fine.

Is the FTC overreacting or are they right to impose a hefty fine?