By Julia Angwin
For the past two months, a fight has been raging in the blogosphere about whether Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer can take credit for spurring the government investigation that led to Google paying a $22.5 million for privacy violations.
Now the Journal has obtained the answer through documents and interviews: the Federal Trade Commission launched its investigation before Mr. Mayer brought it to their attention.
In February, The Wall Street Journal disclosed Google’s practice of bypassing Apple user’s privacy settings, based in part on a tip from Mr. Mayer that was disclosed in the article.
But in recent months, the FTC has raised questions about Mr. Mayer’s role, calling out a blog for “pure supposition” in its claims that that Mr. Mayer scooped the FTC.
To solve the mystery of when the investigation launched, the Journal submitted a freedom-of-information act request to the FTC seeking the date that the investigation was launched.
In response, the FTC revealed an e-mail dated Dec. 16, 2011 from FTC Chief Technologist Ed Felten to a staff attorney titled “[Redacted] Google Violating Safari User Privacy Settings.” The contents of the e-mail were redacted.
Four people familiar with the agency’s investigation said Mr. Felten was the first to bring Google’s practices to the attention of the agency and that Mr. Felten did not learn about Google’s practices from Mr. Mayer.
Mr. Felten confirmed that chain of events, but declined to elaborate on how he discovered Google’s practices.
These people said that as Mr. Felten was looking into the issue, he reached out to Mr. Mayer – who had been his student at Princeton – for data about Google’s practices.
At the time, Mr. Mayer was conducting a study measuring the prevalence of tracking files – known as cookies – across the Web. Mr. Felten sought Mr. Mayer’s data about the prevalence of Google cookies on the computers and phones of people using Apple’s Web browsing software.
Mr. Mayer said: “My computer security and privacy research often addresses topics of public controversy. I’m honored when policymakers seek my input.”
Mr. Mayer’s data showed a disproportionately large number of Google cookies on Safari browsers – a surprising result since Apple Safari Web browsers are configured to block tracking cookies by default.
From that conversation, Mr. Mayer apparently learned enough to be suspicious of Google’s practices. He started looking deeper and brought his findings to the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal’s technical adviser Ashkan Soltani then analyzed Google’s code and surveyed the top 100 most popular Websites, as ranked by Quantcast at the time, to find the Google code placed within ads on those sites.
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