Google Faces Lawsuit Over Street View Data Handling

Dennis Faas's picture

A US federal court has ruled that Google can face charges that it unlawfully collected data through WiFi networks. Google had unsuccessfully argued that what it did was no different than picking up a radio broadcast.

The ruling sets a precedent for the way WiFi networks are treated under the law. Experts believe it may also make it easier for the authorities to take court action against hackers who intentionally set out to steal data.

The case centers on Google's Street View program, which involved taking photos for the company's Google Maps service.

Google Mistakenly Collected Personal Data

Street View also involved scanning for local wireless networks. However, rather than merely make note of the WiFi hotspots, the Google computers collected some of the data being transmitted by those networks.

In cases where the data wasn't encrypted, Google sometimes collected personal information, from email data to videos and documents.

Google maintains it did not do this intentionally. However, a former Street View engineer says he warned the company that the WiFi monitoring could be a problem.

Google now faces a class-action lawsuit by US citizens who say their privacy was violated and that the company breached the Wiretap Act.

Federal Court Rejects Google's Radio Broadcast Claim

Google had tried to get the case dismissed on a legal technicality. It previously argued that any wireless data transmitted without encryption should be treated just like radio broadcasts (both those aimed at the public and frequencies used by police and fire officials), which are exempt from the Wiretap Act. (Source:

A federal appeals court has now rejected that claim, meaning the case can continue. The court said Google's interpretation of the law would produce "absurd results" and effectively make it legal to intentionally stand near a house or business and try to collect data. (Source:

Legal analysts say the ruling could affect other cases because it establishes that people using home or business WiFi networks still have a reasonable expectation of privacy -- even if they make no attempt to protect those networks.

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