FTC: Privacy Glitches? We're On It
Seems as if the Federal Trade Commission still isn't happy about a recent ProPublica report that painted the agency as "toothless," and hampered by technological constraints, like Internet filters that prevent researchers from accessing key sites.
That report, which came out two months ago, specifically explores how Jonathan Mayer "scooped" the FTC with a report that Google circumvented the no-tracking settings on Safari's browser. The Wall Street Journal reported on Mayer's findings in February, prompting Google to promise to delete all tracking data that it collected.
Today, at a conference call about Google's $22.5 million Safari-hack settlement with the FTC, consumer protection chief David Vladeck unequivocally said the commission was looking into the privacy glitch before Mayer went public with his report. "Don't believe everything you read in magazines," Vladeck said. "We were investigating this well before there was any publication in the WSJ or otherwise about this issue."
He went on to say the FTC began its probe "shortly after this problem arose." The agency maintained silence because, "it takes us time to build a case that will stand up in court."
No doubt Vladeck wants ad companies to know that the FTC is watching, even if the agency can't make public accusations as quickly as private researchers.
Still, no one can seriously doubt that academics and independent developers have exposed numerous privacy glitches of the last five years. Consider, in 2009, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley reported that Web companies were using Flash cookies to circumvent users' privacy settings. The following year, researchers from University of California, San Diego brought another questionable technology -- "history-sniffing" -- to light. (History-sniffing technology exploits a vulnerability in browsers to discover the Web sites users previously visited.)
And those are only a few examples. Others include developer Trevor Eckhart (who reported last year that mobile software company Carrier IQ was logging keystrokes), Australian programmer Nik Cubrilovic ( who accused Facebook of tracking users via the 'Like' button), and developer Arun Thampi (who said that the mobile social network Path was uploading users' address books without their knowledge).