Google Goes Both Ways on Snooping

By Tom Bacon

The search engine company Google is a leading critic of government snooping in its records. But Google is also accused of snooping in the business of its customers.

Two examples:

First, the Washington State attorney general and his peers in 36 other states have wrung a settlement from Google worth $17M. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Google secretly tracked users on Apple's Safari web browser to circumvent the browser's privacy settings. Google altered its coding to allow advertisers to insert third-party cookies - small files that allow tracking of users internet habits.

Second, Google is in the midst of a court battle in California in which a class-action suit complains that its Street View photographs also swept up data from un-encrypted WiFi networks. A federal court judge ruled that Google's unrestricted vacuuming of sensitive internet information violated the federal wiretap act. Google equipped its street view cars, not only with cameras, but with wifi antennas and software that captured so-called payload data - that is, everything transmitted by a device connected to a WiFi network, such as personal e-mails, usernames, passwords, videos and documents. The company later apologized, but only after it had collected about 600 gigabites of information
The issue is whether the information Google collected was from radio transmissions accessible to the general public, or whether it was in the nature of illegal wiretaps. That case is being appealed. But Google has agreed in the Safari case to quit overriding browsers' cookie blocking settings without the consumers' consent. And it will pay Washington State more than $600,000 to make the case go away.
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