When Google engineers discovered that the mobile version of Apple's Internet browser, Safari, blocked certain features within Google's social network, Google+, they devised a workaround to circumvent the browser's built in privacy protections. The browser trick also gave Google the ability to track online user behavior that would have otherwise been blocked by those same privacy features.
Google disabled the tracking technology after it was discovered by Stanford security researcher Jonathan Mayer and reported by The Wall Street Journal. But that didn't stop the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from pursuing action against the search giant for running the tracking scheme in the first place.
Now the FTC is set to fine Google to the tune of $22.5 million, the largest fine ever levied by the agency, according to unnamed officials cited in a report by the Journal.
The fine won't substantially impact Google's bottom line (the company brings in that much cash in a few hours), but it does send a signal: The FTC is gunning for big players in the tech sector—with Google at the top of its list.
Indeed, Google has more or less officially been on the agency's shit list for a while. Last year, Bloomberg noted that the agency was weighing a probe of Google, and had hired Tim Wu, the mastermind behind the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality policy, to consult with the agency on how to regulate large Internet companies like Google. The FTC also recently decided to subject Google and Facebook to special oversight, as Forbes' Kashmir Hill explains:
After Google's Buzz debacle — a privacy violation that was far from obscure — the Federal Trade Commission essentially sentenced the tech company to a 20-year probation, during which it has to undergo biannual privacy audits and not do crazy privacy-invading stuff. The FTC has issued similar sentences forFacebook, Twitter, and MySpace, essentially giving itself more power to regulate and levy fines on these companies than it ordinarily would have. As I have argued before, it's how the FTC is hacking U.S.'s fairly weak privacy lawsto make them stronger.
For the next two decades, the two companies that come up most often in the discussion of privacy — Facebook and Google — have a probation officer. (Only Apple needs to be added to the mix.) Privacy missteps by these companies may now lead to multimillion dollar fines (which get sent over to the U.S. Treasury).
Meanwhile, as the FTC works so hard to protect us from the threat of more useful search results and advertising designed to offer products we might actually want, mobile phone carriers reported earlier this week that in 2011 government law enforcement agencies made more than 1.3 million demands for private information about subscribers, including requests for massive "tower dumps" that can return the names and call records for thousands of individuals after a single request. The mobile carriers have resisted a handful of the most dubious requests, and even reported a few to the FBI. The government authorities collecting this data, much of which is not connected to anyone actually involved with a crime, have no uniform standards or protocols for storage or retention, meaning that communications records for entirely innocent individuals may be being kept indefinitely. Thank goodness we have vigilant government watchdogs looking out for our privacy.