A federal judge Wedhas on June 29th found that Google can be held liable for damages for secretly intercepting data on open Wi-Fi routers. The ruling is a serious legal setback for the search giant over activity it has engaged in across the United States for years.
On Wednesday by a Silicon Valley federal judge presiding over nearly a dozen combined lawsuits seeking damages from Google for eavesdropping on open Wi-Fi networks from its Street View mapping cars. The vehicles, which rolled through neighborhoods across the country, were equipped with Wi-Fi-sniffing hardware to record the names and MAC addresses of routers to improve Google location-specific services. But the cars also secretly gathered snippets of Americans' data.
The judge had actually dismissed two of the three claims against Google, but left open the group's ability to sue Google for potentially violating the Wiretap Act:
the Court finds that Plaintiffs plead facts sufficient to state a claim for violation of the Wiretap Act. In particular, Plaintiffs plead that Defendant intentionally created, approved of, and installed specially-designed software and technology into its Google Street View vehicles and used this technology to intercept Plaintiffs' data packets, arguably electronic communications, from Plaintiffs' personal Wi-Fi networks. Further, Plaintiffs plead that the data packets were transmitted over Wi-Fi networks that were configured such that the packets were not readable by the general public without the use of sophisticated packet sniffer technology. Although Plaintiffs fail to plead that the wireless networks fall into at least one of the five enumerated exceptions to Section 2510(16)'s definition of "readily accessible to the general public" for radio communications, the Court finds that the wireless networks were not readily accessible to the general public….
Google had argued that the case should be thrown out, in part, on a technicality that the wireless signals that it intercepted were a "radio communication" and were "readily accessible" because they were unencrypted, thus making the company's actions exempt from the Wiretap Act. The judge disagreed, saying Google's claim that it didn't violate the act is "misplaced."
The court did grant Google's motion to dismiss claims that its action violated various state wiretap laws, saying that the federal Wiretap Act takes precedence, and also dismissed claims that Google violated California's Business and Professional Code.
Asked about Wednesday's ruling, a Google spokesperson gave us this statement:
We believe these claims are without merit and that the Court should have dismissed the Wiretap claim just as it dismissed the plaintiffs' other claims. We're still evaluating our options at this preliminary stage.