Google lost a significant appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday in a privacy lawsuit over data collected by its street-view cars.
After enduring Google’s submissions in support of its actions that collecting data from neighborhood wireless networks was either accidental or justified, the Ninth Circuit failed to agree with Google’s views.
The consolidated class action against Google alleged that Google’s street view cars do not only collect images for Google maps and Google Earth, but also uses technology that intercepts electronic communications moving across neighborhood wireless networks.
The Ninth Circuit held the privacy lawsuit should be allowed to proceed as data moving across home wireless networks, or office wireless networks was not data like radio transmissions that are meant for or available to the general public.
Google had argued that it did not violate the Wiretap Act because the Wiretap Act allowed an exemption for accessing data that was readily available to the general public. The Ninth Circuit was not convinced, and emphasized that Google’s data collection did not qualify for the exemption.
The three-judge panel held that data moving through private wireless networks was not the same as unencrypted radio communications meant for public broadcast.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Jay S. Bybee observed, “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.”
Google had used its street view cars between 2007 and 2010, equipped with Wi-Fi antennas and software that collected data transmitted from neighborhood home and business wireless networks, the court opinion observed.
Besides collecting other data like SSID, unique numbers and Mac addresses of wireless routers, signal strengths and other knowledge including knowledge of whether a network was encrypted, Google’s street-view cars also collected and stored payload data sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi connections, which could include information like personal emails, user names, videos and other documents.
Google acknowledged the fact in 2010 and publicly apologized. The company also settled with 37 US states, and the District of Columbia for an amount of $ 7 million, earlier this year.
The company issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing the decision of the Ninth Circuit and said, “We are disappointed in the Ninth Circuit’s decision and are considering our next steps.”