The Google Wi-Fi Litigation

Google claims it made an honest mistake in 2010 when its Street View cars were collecting too much data. Instead of just obtaining the bare minimum data needed to map out the locations of Wi-Fi networks, the cars allegedly unintentionally collected “packet” data that contained private user information.  Armed with Google’s admission that it had, at a minimum, made an honest mistake, class-action lawyers pounced, alleging violations of federal anti-wiretapping laws.  According to Reuters, Google’s attempts to have the cases dismissed were recently denied.

Google sought dismissal of the cases on the grounds that the old pre-Internet telephone privacy laws don’t apply. In so doing, Google argued that dismissal was appropriate because data transmitted over a Wi-Fi network is readily accessible to the public. Alternatively, it said the Wi-Fi data could be considered an unencrypted “radio communication,” which means it would not be subject to liability under the wiretapping law.  However, District Judge James Ware disagreed with Google’s contention and held that the cases could move forward.

Google appealed, and the Ninth Circuit ultimately agreed with the district court. The Ninth Circuit found that the data collected by Google didn’t fit into either category; it was neither a “radio communication” nor an “electronic communication”  The ruling also rejected the idea that Wi-Fi data is “readily accessible” because most of the general public lacks the expertise to intercept and decode payload data transmitted over a Wi-Fi network.

The case in question is Joffe v. Google, Inc., — F.3d —-, No. 11–17483 (9th Cir. Sept. 10, 2013), which affirmed In re Google Inc. Street View Electronic Communications Litigation, 794 F. Supp. 2d 1067 (N.D. Cal. 2011).

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