Vulnerabilities / Threats

11/12/2010
06:13 PM
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Google Sued Over Past Toolbar Troubles

The Google Toolbar ignored users' privacy choices, the lawsuit claims.

Google was sued on November 5th for allegedly misrepresenting the way Google Toolbar functions.

According to a lawsuit filed in San Jose, Calif., on behalf of plaintiff Jason Weber, the Google Toolbar -- a user-installed browser toolbar -- tracked Web use even after such tracking had supposedly been disabled.

"Google has provided users inadequate and misleading disclosures regarding Toolbar and the control mechanisms that purport to implement users' Toolbar preferences," the complaint states. "Unbeknownst to users, these controls do not work as described."

The complaint also takes issue with the terminology in Google's privacy policy. It says that Google's language conflates the concept of a Web site and a URL and argues that in so doing, Google trivializes the privacy consequences of activating the Toolbar's "Enhanced Features."

That distinction is important, the complaint asserts, because a Web site can be identified simply as a domain, such as Google.com. But a URL may contain all sorts of potentially sensitive data appended after the directory path, such as cookie identifiers, queries, or other information.

A Google spokesperson said the company had not yet been served and thus couldn't comment.

The complaint draws heavily on a report published in January by Harvard assistant professor Benjamin Edelman. The report calls on Google to make sure that data transmission in the service of the Toolbar's Enhanced Features should terminate when disabled by the user and to cease nonconsensual data collection, specifically browsing data from users who have elected not to have browsing data collected.

Google updated Toolbar on January 26, 2010, to correct the flaw that had prevented user preferences from being honored. An attorney representing the plaintiff was not immediately available to explain why this lawsuit is being filed now.

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