British Group Files Class Action Suit Against Google for 2012 Safari Targeting Workaround

Graham Ruddick, the Guardian:

More than 5 million people in the UK could be entitled to compensation from Google if a class action against the internet giant for allegedly harvesting personal data is successful.

A group led by the former executive director of consumer body Which?, Richard Lloyd, and advised by City law firm Mischon de Reya claims Google unlawfully collected personal information by bypassing the default privacy settings on the iPhone between June 2011 and February 2012.

They have launched a legal action with the aim of securing compensation for those affected. The group, called Google You Owe Us, says that approximately 5.4 million people in Britain used the iPhone during this period and could be entitled to compensation.

Google is accused of breaching principles in the UK’s data protection laws in a “violation of trust” against iPhone users.

The technique used by Google and other ad companies to bypassing Safari’s cookie settings was originally described publicly in a 2012 Wall Street Journal article by Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries:

To get around Safari’s default blocking, Google exploited a loophole in the browser’s privacy settings. While Safari does block most tracking, it makes an exception for websites with which a person interacts in some way—for instance, by filling out a form. So Google added coding to some of its ads that made Safari think that a person was submitting an invisible form to Google. Safari would then let Google install a cookie on the phone or computer.

It is striking to me how malicious this kind of action is. It isn’t Google’s right to determine when it feels like it can circumvent users’ preferences to install cookies or anything on their computers. You may argue that these are not users’ preferences — that Safari’s defaults are Apple’s preferences. But I think that’s a dangerous stance because there’s no way to determine when a preference has been deliberately chosen by the user.

I know I’ve been harping on bugs in Apple’s software for the last little while, but deliberate actions like Google’s bother me far more. The Safari workaround is something that an engineer had to actually build. Someone had to understand that Safari’s default cookie settings were incompatible with tracking, but instead of choosing not to track users, they thought it was their right to override those preferences. Egregious.