Google Loses Appeal in Street View Case: Decision Redefines Privacy Laws

Alison K. Lanier

Privacy is consistently a headlining issue, making the backlash against Google’s Street View privacy infringements far from surprising. The company faced a drawn-out lawsuit accusing Google of violating federal wiretapping laws in the process of compiling its massively comprehensive Street View database.

Nvate Street View Case Privacy Law Google’s Street View private Wi-Fi networks Wi-Spy

Credit: Google

Street View is Google’s popular service for exploring any photographed road, explored by the nine-eyed Google Street View car camera, foot-by-foot like walking down a street. Reuters reported that in September Google lost its appeal in federal court to have the case dismissed, in a landmark decision that will protect the privacy of unsecured wireless networks.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Google an exemption for its inadvertent violation of wiretapping laws. Google, in collecting its views of city streets, also accidentally collected in passing private passwords, emails, and other personal data from private Wi-Fi networks.

A Massive Accident

In 2010, as Computerworld reported, Google admitted to inadvertently capturing data from open Wi-Fi networks in the process of shooting its famously comprehensive panoramic photos.

The total data accidentally collected in this way totaled about 650 GB, according to Computerworld. The company apologized for its inadvertent actions and has promised to “destroy or render inaccessible” the data.

Individuals sued Google in the aftermath of the data collection, with Google mounting a defense on the basis that the data it collected was unencrypted, and hence—theoretically—available to the general public, although the data drew from personal emails, passwords, videos, and documents. The owners of this data, said Google, had not taken action to protect their data, rendering their data unprotected under federal wiretap laws, using the example of open radio communications as a parallel example.

The courts didn’t see Google’s case quiet so generously. Google, reported the Associated Press, is the first company to try to make a case like this, and the ruling is a benchmark decision in opposition to “Wi-Spy” uses of home Wi-Fi to collect data.

Condemning “Wi-Spying”

The decision predictably pleased watchdog organizations, like John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director.

“This appeals court decision is a tremendous victory for privacy rights,” Simpson told the Associated Press. “It means Google can’t suck up private communications from people’s Wi-Fi networks and claim their Wi-Spying was exempt from federal wiretap laws. Because Google’s Wi-Spy activity was so extensive, the potential damages could amount to billions of dollars.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., called the case “a landmark decision that affirms the privacy of electronic communications for wireless networks. 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.”

“Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi network,” Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote, speaking for a three-judge panel, “members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network.”

The decision defines, not so much that households’ private-if-unencrypted Wi-Fi networks are off-limits private property, but rather that the information accessible through them is protected. Therefore the criminalizing aspect of the decision does not fall on the neighbor who utilizes the open Wi-Fi network of the apartment next door doesn’t fall under condemnation.

Examining the Extent of Google’s Misstep

Google’s transgression went several steps beyond borrowing the neighbor’s Wi-Fi though: data was collected in more than 30 countries. In fact it was a German data expert who in 2010 uncovered the practice. Google’s initial response then, and since, has been the same—claiming the invasion was accidental.

“In short, let me just say that we screwed up,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, according to the Associated Press.

For the time being Google, according to the Associated Press, is required to hold onto the stolen data during the course of the investigation and litigation. Google says that it is in the process of considering its next step in its ongoing legal troubles and describes itself as “disappointed” in the appeal court’s decision.

Loose privacy laws surrounding these household Wi-Fi networks allowed Google to write off its massive invasion of privacy with a quippy apology. Hopefully, as the various watchdog groups who have spoken out positively about the case, the decision will lead to a stricter and more accountable system of legal benchmarks to deal with transgressions into private Wi-Fi networks. Although Google is feeling the sting, its revolutionary efforts at Street View mapping may lead to a similar advance in protecting Wi-Fi privacy.

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