A federal judge has ruled that Google can be sued for wiretapping in connection with last year’s Street View car debacle, in which Google admitted it had “accidentally” and secretly collected personal data from open Wi-Fi networks.
The ruling was handed down last week by U.S. District Court Judge James Ware, who is presiding over nearly a dozen combined class action lawsuits seeking damages from Google for spying on open Wi-Fi networks via its Street View mapping cars. The vehicles, which began cruising American roads in 2007 as part of the company’s mapping program, snapped photographs and collected GPS data, but also inadvertently (or so they claim) harvested usernames, passwords and emails from unprotected personal and business wireless networks.
Judge Ware tossed accusations that Google’s Street View cars broke several states’ laws by collecting personal information off the open Wi-Fi networks, but allowed the claim that the company violated the Federal Wiretap Act.
Google tried to dismiss the class action case by claiming it was not illegal to intercept data from unencrypted, or non-password-protected Wi-Fi networks because they are akin to “radio communications” like AM/FM radio.
According to the Wiretap Act, it’s not considered wiretapping “to intercept or access an electronic communication made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public.”
Judge Ware disagreed, however, saying that interception did not apply to open, unencrypted Wi-Fi networks and only applied to “traditional radio services.”
The judge ruled the Plaintiffs showed sufficient proof to state a claim for violation of the Wiretap Act by showing Google “intentionally created, approved of, and installed specially-designed software and technology into its Google Street View vehicles and used this technology to intercept plaintiffs’…electronic communications.” He also ruled that electronic data transmitted over Wi-Fi networks is not akin to radio communications because the data packets were “configured such that the packets were not readable by the general public without the use of sophisticated packet-sniffer technology.”
No hearing date has been set.
UPDATE 1: Class action lawsuits over the so-called “Google Wi-Spy” debacle have been consolidated and are continuing, despite several attempts by Google to have them dismissed. A federal judge ruled Feb. 14, 2014, to lift a stay on proceedings, moving the litigation to the discovery phase. Top Class Actions will continue to update our readers on the progress of the case, now known as In re: Google Inc. Street View Electronic Communications Litigation, MDL No. 2184, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.
UPDATE 2: On June 30, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not review the Google Street View class action lawsuit, rejecting an appeal by the tech giant to have the case thrown out.
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