Google hit by record fine over tricksy tracking cookies

US authorities demanded £14.4m from Google for using cookies to trick Safari into eavesdropping on your online comings and goings.

Google has been slapped with the largest fine ever imposed on a single company by the US consumer protection body.  The US Federal Trade Commission demanded £14.4m from the big G for using cookies to trick Safari into eavesdropping on your online comings and goings.

Authorities imposed the fine on Google for ignoring the Do Not Track privacy settings of Safari users, monitoring their online activity by exploiting a loophole in the software.

Google used a snippet of code to get around Safari's security, allowing web surfers who had signed in to Google Plus to then click the +1 button in adverts that belong to Google's DoubleClick network.

Tracking cookies are small text files installed on your computer to monitor your online activity, information which can be used by advertisers to target ads or collect information about what people are clicking on. Data from tracking cookies is usually anonymous, and Google says no personal information such as names or credit card data have been swiped from the Safari controversy.

Safari's security settings block tracking cookies by default, unless you've directly interacted with a website. Google's code tricked Safari into placing a tracking cookie by making the browser think you were submitting a form to Google rather than clicking an ad.

The exploit was spotted way back in 2010 by one Anant Garg, and Google's use of it was spied by Stanford University researcher Jonathan Mayer. Other advertisers are suspected of using this exploit too.

Google has accepted that it was less than up-front about its policies, which is what the fine applies to. By paying the fine, Google doesn't have to own up to the actual methods used to get around Safari's settings. £14.4m sounds like a lot, but it's pocket change to the US search giant, which made £1.8bn profit in just three months earlier this year.

Is the fine harsh or fair? Is Google still living up to its 'Don't be evil' motto? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.

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Software
About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.

 

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