Google privacy scandal reveals weakness in US watchdog system

A computer scientist has proved that Google has been bypassing technology designed to block tracking systems to allow for anonymous browsing.

Jonathan Mayer suspected that online advertisers might be getting around the law which stopped them from following people as they moved from one site to another.

He ran a series of clever tests in which he purchased ads that acted as sniffers for the sort of unauthorised cookies he thought were being used.

He discovered that Google was secretly planting cookies on a vast number of iPhone browsers.

It was being done in exactly the way the Federal Trade Commission aims to protect consumers from, and Google now reportedly faces a fine of more than $10 million.

What is alarming, however, is that the FTC didn’t discover the violation, and indeed did not even look for it. Mayer is a 25-year-old student working on law and computer science degrees at Stanford University.

He worked out what Google was up to in his own time between classes and homework. He got no money for the work he did.

According to Wired, while the FTC is supposed to be stopping Google and similar companies doing such things it is given little cash to do the job.

In addition there is a reluctance for US politicians to take on the big Internet companies particularly when they are funding their election campaigns.

But Wired points out that the FTC officials hired by the Obama administration are privacy hawks who worked previously for consumer-rights groups like Public Citizen and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The only problem is that they have not got the time or money to take on the technological leg work required to find out what the advertising companies are doing.

There is also some bizarre hoops that government agencies have to jump through. ProPublica found that the FTC’s Privacy and Identity Protection technologist can’t do research work because his computer has security filters that restrict access to key websites.