Google loses appeal in 'landmark' Street View ruling

Google loses appeal in 'landmark' Street View ruling

Summary: U.S. appeals court throws out Google's bid to dismiss a lawsuit stating it violated wiretap laws when it accidentally gathered personal data for its Street View application, in what a privacy advocate calls a "landmark decision".


A U.S. appeals court has thrown out Google's attempt to dismiss a lawsuit stating it violated federal wiretap laws when it unintentionally collected personal user data for its Street View mapping tool. 

In its decision, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Google should be held liable under the U.S. federal Wiretap Act for accidentally collecting fragments of personal and sensitive data, including user passwords and entire e-mail, from home wireless broadband networks in the U.S. and Europe. The data had been gathered while its Street View vehicles, equipped with Wi-Fi-sniffing tools, roamed the streets capturing data for the location-based service. 

"It's a landmark decision that affirms the privacy of electronic communications for wireless networks," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said in a report by Reuters. "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."

In its ruling, Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote that Wi-Fi communications could not be deemed "radio communication" that was publicly accessible, which Google had argued should exempt it from the Wiretap Act. "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," Bybee stated. 

He dismissed Google's "expansive" definition of radio communication would produce "absurd results". For instance, it could in theory make it legal for someone to park outside the home or office that used an unsecured network, deploy a device that captures data transmitted over the network, and intercept an e-mail intended for the homeowner.

"Consider an e-mail attachment containing sensitive personal information sent from a secure Wi-Fi network to a doctor, lawyer, accountant, priest, or spouse. A company like Google that intercepts the contents of that e-mail from the encrypted home network has, quite understandably, violated the Wiretap Act," Bybee said. "Surely Congress did not intend to condone such an intrusive and unwarranted invasion of privacy when it enacted the Wiretap Act 'to protect against the unauthorized interception of electronic communications'."

Google said it was "disappointed" with the decision and mulling its next steps.

The Internet giant in March had agreed to pay US$7 million to settle a case involving 38 U.S. states as well as delete data collected in the United States. Germany's privacy regulator in April also ordered Google to pay a fine of 140,000 euros (US$189,000), the highest the country could have enforced on any company under German laws. 

A San Francisco-based district judge in June 2011 permitted plaintiffs in several private lawsuits to file damages against Google based on the Wiretap Act.

Topics: Privacy, Google, Legal, Security


Eileen Yu began covering the IT industry when Asynchronous Transfer Mode was still hip and e-commerce was the new buzzword. Currently a freelance blogger and content specialist based in Singapore, she has over 16 years of industry experience with various publications including ZDNet, IDG, and Singapore Press Holdings.

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  • This is retarded

    The government monitors everyone without their knowledge nor consent, Yet google accidentally records airwaves and does nothing with the information and they are getting chased. Which the information doesn't really contain any personal information other than a network address and ID if the information is encrypted. Which if they didn't put encryption on their wireless routers anyone can listen in anyways.
    Nickolus Rodriguez
    • Clueless Nick

      Saying "this is retarded" is both offensive and shows that you have no class whatsover.

      Second, saying Google "accidentally" recorded very specific data using software that was for that very specific purpose, filling 100s of terabytes worth of hard drives is breathtakingly ignorant on your part! I mean you have no idea what you're talking about.

      Third, there is quite a difference between a government agency that may or may not have been breaking the government's laws and a private company clearly breaking wiretapping laws. Go back to the 4th grade if you don't understand why.

      Lastly, you are NOT allowed to wiretap even if it is made easier by a lack of encryption. For example, just because I leave my front door unlocked does not mean that you can walk in and steal my wireless router. Again, go back to elementary school if this is too difficult a concept for you to grasp.
      Thankfully it was not for the judge in this case.
      George McDowell
      • Irony is so Ironic

        Thank you for your pedantic response to Nick's entry. The real issue here is what constitutes wiretapping not whether not wiretapping is illegal. Is clearly is illegal for everyone except the NSA, which is the government.

        With the advances of electronic communication, the question of what constitutes a wiretapping, and Google some position on this in this matter, were of interest and had not been defined. Google's position was readily defensible. If your door is unlocked, I still have to physically walk onto your property, and open the door to harvest information. If I'm driving past your house and you were sending out electronic information over a wireless network, clearly within range of the street, and I'm encrypted, how is this any different than you physically throwing an item from your house through the window of my car as I drive past? Did I take, or did I receive? Was my action intentional?

        Whatever arguments were made, I do find the verdict remarkable, when laid side-by-side with the NSA's actions.
        Luke Skywalker
        • @Luke

          Wrong Analogy.

          Unencrypted network is more like keeping a board outside the house saying "The door is open". Or more likely you do not have a compound at all and keep the door open and hence can be seen by any one who passes the house.

          You have neither the right to enter the door as it is not an invitation nor take anything from the house even if it is garbage.

          If you do have a proof that NSA is actually spying on you then sue the government in a court. I am not into the debate whether NSA is spying or not. I am arguing about a proof.

          And I am not into the defence that you can do anything until you get caught either. Just stating that Google spied and get caught and thus it has to pay for it's crime.
    • Google did it 100% intentionally.

      It might have been a mistake in judgement but it was not a mistake. The collection of data was specifically mentioned in the proposal for the project that was approved by huger-ups.
    • Did you not read what google did? There was nothing accidental about this.

      They intentionally captured the personal information. They then stored it on their servers and ran their data mining software on it. They always intended to do this. They refused to delete it when asked to. They always had this in the plan for the program before they ever started doing it. And they want to keep doing this. They're fighting this so that they can resume doing this. This is about as far removed from just mapping wireless access points as you can get.
      Johnny Vegas
    • You should really ask yourself........

      If Google's primary purpose was to "map the streets", why were they spying on and recording private wireless networks?
    • "Accident", are you really that gullible?

      So far Google has gotten off way to easy for such egregious breach of privacy so I really hope they get nailed over this to set an example.
    • Two wrongs don't make a right

      Sorry Nick but I agree that government snooping is no better and sometimes worse. That does not mean the Google suit is frivolous. Snooping does seem to be a trend as more and more companies are finding that the more they know about people. The better they can relate to them.
      I am not like some who find some data gathering a privacy issue. What I do think is wrong is data specific to me being shared without my consent.
  • Naughty Google

    Now to get the NSA in court.
    Alan Smithie
    • @Alan Smithie

      Only if you catch NSA red handed ;-)
    • Oh if only we could

      I think that the NSA is hiding behind domestic security and its clear its not helping a great deal. When you think about it, we have more domestic terror then foreign in America. But we cannot even do decent background checks AKA Navy yard bomber and yet we monitor what Grandma is telling her grandchildren.
  • Silly Google...

    ...if they had just sold that info to the NSA no one would have ever heard about this. In fact, I would not be surprised if the reason this charge even came up was that Google did not hand it over to the NSA.
    • I second that thought...

      This news broke before Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA. According to:

      "New Snowden Documents Show NSA Deemed Google Networks a 'Target'"
      Quote: "Other documents show that the NSA’s so-called STORMBREW program—which involves sifting Internet traffic directly off of cables as it is flowing past—is being operated with the help of a 'key corporate partner' at about eight key locations across the United States where there is access to 'international cables, routers, and switches.' According to a leaked NSA map, this surveillance appears to be taking place at network junction points in Washington, Florida, Texas, at two places in California, and at three further locations in or around Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania."

      Conclusion: Trust neither corporations nor governments, place trust in the Lord God.
      • Why should anyone trust some made-up invisible entity?

        "Conclusion: Trust neither corporations nor governments, place trust in the Lord God."

        At least I can sue the corporations & governments. Good luck suing this "Lord God"...whoever or whatever he/she/it is.
    • @fieldlab

      Nah... Google would have handed over the data happily to NSA if they asked for it. Even for free of cost.
  • Beta testing?

    I thought Google was merely beta testing the system for the NSA.

    At least, that's what I woulda said.
  • One Millionth

    A Google Streetview car speeds by a location maybe every two years for 15 seconds, taking pictures and getting wifi location data. On the corner there is a traffic cam, or in the city dozens of burglar cams taking pictures 24 by 7 by 365. There is a MILLION TIMES great chance that you will be identified doing something or being somewhere by the cams that never blink.

    And these privacy NUTS latch on to yet another way to justify their existence. Yes, they will be successful in stirring up public opinion against a vital service (and if you don't think Streetview is vital, you wear that "Luddite" badge well). I could understand Europe authorities jabbering about Google -- they have local industries that could pop up and drive that nasty American company out so they can take over, because even those clowns understand how valuable the FREE Google service is.

    If Google had a sense of humor, they would demand payment from every community that gets StreetView images -- no payment, be happy with satellite images.

    Wait it gets better -- all of this teeth gnashing and phony hand wringing about delving into secrets -- every wireless router on the planet has encryption schemes to protect every byte transmitted -- what the Privacy Police are trying to convince everybody about is because users are too lazy to assign a simple password!

    Yeah, lets get out our signs and march -- "Stop Streetview", " No more Searches by Google", "Down with the Internet", "Turn off WiFi in Smartphones".
    • Streetview

      Streetview is not nor has ever been "vital" to me and many other people in the world.

      Having said that, Why can't Google run the Streetview program minus the WiFi snooping tools?
  • @TomMariner

    Sorry but this is one of the dumbest post I ever read.

    1) Streetview is vital - Haven't you ever drove before/without streetview? Or never heard of any live traffic apps before that? Or are you saying you cannot drive without streetview?
    2) Reason of European authorities 'jabbering' - Just because it's an American company doesn't mean that it can crush competition with money. They were 'jabbering' about IE being the default browser and choice was not given. Is Chrome built by an American company? Or Safari? Or Firefox?
    3) FREE Google service - Google offers everything for free. Right. Then how can you explain how they make billions of money every year? All the money coming through their paid subscription services? If you think that was the case, sorry for even replying.
    4) "every wireless router on the planet has encryption schemes to protect every byte transmitted" - So in other words, if you can steal then you can keep as the owner is not keeping it safe enough. Great thinking buddy.

    Please do not march with the signs saying "Google is a god. Allow it to do whatever"