Google Street View Lawsuit Can Proceed: 9th Circuit

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on September 12, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Much to Google's dismay, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to dismiss a Google Street View lawsuit accusing the tech giant of violating federal wiretap law when it accidentally collected personal information while obtaining photographs for Street View.

Essentially, Google inadvertently eavesdropped on open Wi-Fi networks from its Street View mapping cars (yeah, those funny cars with dunce caps you've seen whiz by).

The cars' Wi-Fi-sniffing hardware, used to improve location-specific services, unintentionally intercepted people's emails, user names, passwords, and other data, reports Reuters.

The latest legal blow brings Google one step closer to being held liable for civil damages.

Wiretapping Laws

The class action lawsuit, brought by consumers with unsecured wireless networks, stems from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which protects against the unauthorized interception of electronic communications.

Google tried to use an exemption in the statute, which states that it's not unlawful to access electronic communication that is readily available to the public. Under the statute, it's also not unlawful to intercept unencrypted radio communications.

The tech giant moved to dismiss the case after arguing that unencrypted (non-password protected) wireless networks are "radio communications" that are "readily accessible."

The lower court rejected Google's argument. Undaunted, Google appealed to the Ninth Circuit but got the same result.

Not Readily Accessible

The Ninth Circuit ruled that Google didn't deserve an exemption from the Wiretap Act because the unsecured Wi-Fi communication didn't qualify as radio or electronic communication that was "readily accessible to the general public," the opinion states.

Even if it's common for people to connect to a neighbor's unencrypted Wi-Fi network, those people "do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network," Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote.

Dwindling Options

With Google's main argument falling flat, its only other options are going to trial, settling, asking the court to rehear the case, or petitioning the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit's decision.

Google may have good reason to scratch its head and wonder where it went wrong. Just last year, the Federal Communications Commission cleared Google of wrongdoing in its unencrypted Wi-Fi sniffing, reports Wired magazine.

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