Google Loses Appeal in Street View Wi-Fi Wiretapping Case

Photo credit: Modfos/
Photo credit: Modfos/

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Google to be liable under the US Federal Wiretap Act, after the company in 2010 sent Wi-Fi sniffing vehicles out to gather Street View data. In the process of gathering information about unencrypted Wi-Fi networks, it managed to get a hold of user names and passwords, and some of the information being sent across those open networks, like whole emails.

At the time Google issued an apology, saying that the interception was accidental, and it vowed to change. Nonetheless, an FCC probe, international attention, an injunction by the UK’s ICO to delete all Street View data and the filing of US lawsuits were all brought against the search giant.

In response, Google mounted a defense around semantics, arguing that this type of collection of personal data is exempt from the Wiretap Act, because the “radio communications” in question are being sent over open, unencrypted channels in the range of 3 KHz to 300 GHz. In other words, it’s just like using a pair of rabbit ears to pick up local TV signals and their content payload. Right? Unsurprisingly, the court begged to differ.

“Wi-Fi transmissions are not 'readily accessible' to the 'general public' because most of the general public lacks the expertise to intercept and decode payload data transmitted over a Wi-Fi network,” wrote circuit judge Jay Bybee in the decision. “Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor's unencrypted Wi-Fi network, members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network."

To date, the company has paid out $7 million in settlements with the District of Columbia and 37 US states over the issue.

"It's a landmark decision that affirms the privacy of electronic communications for wireless networks," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C., told Reuters. "Many internet users depend on wireless networks to connect devices in their homes, such as printers and laptops, and companies should not be snooping on their communications or collecting private data."

The privacy lawsuit against Google – disparate cases have been consolidated into one – can thus proceed forward. Google is "disappointed" with the decision, it said.

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