Google slapped with $17 million settlement for tracking consumers without their consent

So much for its “don’t be evil” motto.

Google was recently ordered to pay out $17 million as part of a multi-state settlement with the New York Attorney General’s office, over its unauthorized use of cookies to track consumers online. The Attorney General’s office penalized Google for its placement of cookies on computers, without consumer knowledge, using Apple Safari Web browsers during 2011 and 2012.

“Consumers should be able to know whether there are other eyes surfing the web with them,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “By tracking millions of people without their knowledge, Google violated not only their privacy, but also their trust,” 

You’re probably wondering what the fuss is all about, since almost everything we do is tracked online through cookie technology, little digital tags that remember the sites you visit. In this case however, Google went around people’s browser privacy controls, which were specifically put in place so that they wouldn’t be tracked. Here’s how the Attorney General’s office explains it in the statement it released:

From June 1, 2011, until February 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent those default privacy settings on Safari, without consumers’ knowledge or consent, enabling it to put DoubleClick cookies on consumers’ Safari Web browsers. Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was widely reported on the Internet and in the media.

For privacy zealots, that’s pretty scary. It means that even if you specifically asked not to be tracked online, Google went ahead and did it anyway, just so it could show you its ads, and give your data to advertisers.

Here’s what Google has been ordered not to do as part of the settlement:

  • Not deploy the type of code used in this case to override a browser’s cookie blocking settings without the consumer’s consent unless it is necessary to do so in order to detect, prevent or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
  • Not misrepresent or omit material information to consumers about how they can use any particular Google product, service, or tool to directly manage how Google serves advertisements to their browsers.
  • Improve the information it gives consumers regarding cookies, their purpose, and how the cookies are managed by consumers using Google’s products or services and tools.
  • Maintain systems designed to ensure the expiration of the third-party cookies set on Safari Web browsers while their default settings had been circumvented.

$17 million might seem like a drop in the bucket for a company that made $14.9 billion just last quarter. But it does send a message to marketers and advertisers to be wary. Big Data analysis may be the new best thing, but there are still plenty of concerns from the consumer side about being mined for information, a lot of which is still considered private.

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