The U.S. Appeals Court in San Francisco refused Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses Google of violating federal wiretapping laws by collecting emails and data about people's Web surfing habits as the company's Street View cars crisscrossed the world.
Millions of people use unencrypted wireless networks in their homes to access the Internet. The lawsuit alleges Google's Street View cars were listening in to those digital conversations and making recordings of the traffic in violation of federal law.
Privacy advocates called the ruling a landmark. A federal judge in the case called Google's arguments "absurd." The plaintiff attorneys who brought the case announced their intention to try to certify a class action.
Now, Google may face another enormous privacy lawsuit — but this one could cost the firm billions.
The company has admitted that from 2008 to 2010 its Street View cars collected payload data from millions of wireless networks as the cars photographed the world's streets. Collecting the location for wireless networks can help programs like Google Maps increase accuracy, but the fact that Google was collecting the contents of the Internet communication and storing it created an outcry.
Google attempted to blame the incident on a "rogue employee" and sought to settle a privacy investigation with the Federal Trade Commission. This March it settled a lawsuit brought by 38 states and the District of Columbia for $7 million — a paltry sum for a firm of its size.
In its attempt to dismiss the private lawsuit, Google argued that because the Internet data it was collecting was broadcast over the airwaves and was not encrypted the communications were more like radio transmissions than phone calls.
Circuit Judge Jay Bybee seemed to find that assertion risible.
" 'Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor's unencrypted Wi-Fi network,' Bybee wrote in his ruling, 'members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network.' "
Bybee wrote that if Google's interpretation of federal wiretapping laws was allowed to stand, someone could simply sit outside a home or café that had a wireless network and collect and intercept email intended for those inside.
" '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," ' he wrote."
Google said it was disappointed in the decision and is evaluating its options.