Google has responded to all the investigations over the last few years about its Street View vehicles' grabbing data in neighborhoods around the world with no major repercussions thus far. But now, following a federal court order issued Tuesday, the company must stand trial for these actions.
In the summer of 2010, various class-action suits against Google from across the U.S. were consolidated, and in 2011, a U.S. District Court ruled that the case could proceed. Google's appeal was considered by the three-judge 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Jose, which issued its order Tuesday. In varying degrees, the suits charged that Google violated federal and state privacy laws when its Street View camera- and receiver-equipped vehicles recorded imagery and data for the company's mapping products.
The technology giant had asked that the case be dismissed because any data that is transmitted over open Wi-Fi networks is "readily accessible to the general public," and is thus unencrypted "radio communication." If the court agreed, this could mean that the collection of such data was not a violation of privacy or wiretapping laws.
Google's attorneys argued that radio communication was any transmission in the 3 kHz to 300 GHz range, but the court rejected this assessment, saying that such a wide definition would include "TV broadcasts, Bluetooth devices, cordless and cellular phones, garage door openers, avalanche beacons, and wildlife tracking collars."
In other words, it would include transmissions that are not normally considered a form of radio communication. Additionally, the court said that Congress had determined "radio communication" primarily referred to auditory broadcasts, while Google had been collecting non-auditory data. Even if the means to capture such data was not technically complex, the court ruled that the data was also not "readily accessible."
The plaintiffs say that the court's decision sets a welcome precedent in which e-mails and other data sent over Wi-Fi networks are protected by the federal Wiretap Act, although many observers have noted that telecommunications laws need to be brought up to date. "Surely," wrote Judge Jay Bybee in the decision, "Congress did not intend to condone such an intrusive and unwarranted invasion of privacy when it enacted the Wiretap Act."
State, U.S. Settlements
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the court's decision "very good news for any person who has a wireless network in their home and reasonably expects that a company will not drive down there street scooping up their e-mail and capturing their personal data."
The court's decision brings the entire controversy back to the fore, following its settlement earlier this year with attorneys general from 38 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. That joint settlement cost Google $7 million, and the company agreed to destroy the collected data.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission determined that Google had not broken wiretapping laws, but it issued a $25,000 fine for obstruction of its investigation.