Google Street View in Hot Water

Crime, News, Privacy

Bad news came for Google earlier this month when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its decision in the case of Joffre v. Google. Google was charged with violating the Wiretap Act after collecting data from unencrypted Wi-Fi routers in several countries including the U.S. The tech giant now faces civil damages.

Google Collected Private Data from Unsecured Networks

Google’s Street View cars can provide laughs but have also been the source of lawsuits for the company over the past few years. The cars are equipped to take 360° photos for the Google Maps Street View feature, which allows you to see photos of real addresses. Between 2007 and 2010, the cars were also equipped with antennas and software that allowed them to scan nearby wireless routers and get data. The intention was to improve accuracy. The result was an invasion of privacy, according to the court.

By connecting to unprotected Wi-Fi networks, Google was able to collect “payload data” that included routers’ MAC addresses, usernames, passwords, and email content. Over a three-year period, Google collected approximately 600 GB of data from millions of wireless networks in a dozen countries.

Lawsuit Brought Against Google in 2010

This ended in 2010 when several lawsuits were brought against Google for violating wiretap laws. Google argued that because the data came from unencrypted networks, it was “readily accessible by the general public” and that what they did was less like spying, and more like tuning in to freely available “radio communications.”

District Court Judge James Ware did not accept Google’s defense in 2011. Upon appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld that decision, allowing the lawsuit against Google to proceed. The courts did not accept the argument that unencrypted Wi-Fi data can be compared to radio waves. Writing the decision, Judge Jay Bybee stated, “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.”

At various times over the past few years, Google has been ordered to destroy the data it collected in several countries.

What the Decision Means for Individuals and Google

The decision has been welcomed by many as protecting individual privacy. It means that private citizens can have the reasonable expectation that someone isn’t connecting to their unprotected network and gathering information. It could also mean that police and other government agents will be required to get a wiretap order to gather this information, not just a search warrant. (A wiretap order is typically harder to obtain.)

People inadvertently collecting data in such a manner could face prosecution, even if they merely collected it but did not read it.

What happens to Google now? It could settle, request that the Supreme Court review the decision, or go to trial. If it loses, the company could pay large fines (maybe considerably more than the $7 million it agreed to pay in March) as well as face damage to its reputation. Google is now determining its “next steps.”