Congressmen Query Google Over Apple Safari Cookie Tracking

U.S. Congressmen have asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into whether Google violated its consent degree by using ad cookies to surreptitiously track Web surfers on Apple's Safari browser.

Congressmen have taken an interest in Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) cookie tracking on Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Safari Web browser, the second time within a month that U.S. politicians have questioned the search engine giant over its approach to user data privacy.

Google and a few other advertising companies have secretly tracked the Web-browsing habits of millions of people using Apple's Mac computers, iPhones and iPad tablets. Apple's Safari browser is designed to prevent such monitoring to preserve user privacy, but Google and others have figured out a way to trick the browser into allowing the tracking via advertising cookies.

Google, which said the tracking was inadvertent and that the ad cookies did not collect personal information, disabled its code Feb. 16 after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal, which first learned of the code from Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student at Stanford University.

The issue came to light three weeks after U.S. senators expressed concern about Google's forthcoming privacy-policy changes, in which the company is lumping privacy rules for 60 products under one umbrella policy, and enabling those Web services to share data. Google was very forthcoming about these changes.

That was not the case in this Safari instance. As a result, Congressmen Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairmen of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, and Cliff Sterns (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, have asked the Federal Trade Commission if this browser issue violates Google's consent agreement not to misrepresent how and why it collects user information.

"Google's practices could have a wide sweeping impact because Safari is a major Web browser used by millions of Americans," wrote Reps. Markey, Barton and Stearns to the FTC. "As members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we are interested in any actions the FTC has taken or plans to take to investigate whether Google has violated the terms of its consent agreement."

Google struck that consent agreement with the FTC last year to settle privacy-infringement concerns over its now-defunct Google Buzz social service. The company could incur fines of $16,000 per violation per day.

Here's what happened to draw the attention of the Congressmen, according to the Journal. Google and online ad providers Vibrant Media, WPP's Media Innovation Group and Gannett's PointRoll essentially exploited a loophole in Safari's privacy settings that let them place a cookie on a user's iPhone, iPad or Mac.