Bloomberg News

Google Must Face Suit Over Street View Wiretapping Claims

June 30, 2011

(Updates with judge’s ruling in third paragraph.)

June 30 (Bloomberg) -- Google Inc. must face a lawsuit claiming its data collection using Wi-Fi networks for its Street View program, which allows users see photographs of roadsides, violates wiretapping laws, a judge said.

U.S. District Judge James Ware in San Francisco denied Google’s bid to dismiss claims that the data collection, which included e-mails, user names, passwords and other private data, violated federal wiretap laws. Ware granted Google’s request to dismiss claims based on state statutes.

The class-action, or group lawsuit was filed on behalf of residents living in nine U.S. states whose homes can be seen depicted on Google Street View. The case is the first in which a federal court is being asked to determine whether a company can be found liable under federal wiretap laws based on allegations that it intentionally intercepted data from a wireless home network, according to Ware’s opinion.

While Google publicly disclosed its intent to use vehicles equipped with cameras to capture photos, it failed to say it also intended to capture wireless data, Ware wrote. The Mountain View, California-based company argued it couldn’t be found liable for federal wiretapping violations because the Wi-Fi broadcasts were unencrypted and “readily accessible” to the general public.

Unencrypted Networks

“Although the networks themselves were unencrypted, the networks were configured to prevent the general public from gaining access to the data packets without the assistance of sophisticated technology,” Ware wrote. “Merely pleading that a network is unencrypted does not render that network readily accessible to the general public” and make interception of communications from that network immune from liability, the judge said.

Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that the lawsuit’s claims are “without merit.” Ware should have dismissed all the claims, and the company is “still evaluating our options at this preliminary stage,” Nancarrow said.

Last month, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Google Inc., Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. for information about the companies’ collection of data from private wireless networks to create maps of Wi-Fi service, saying the practice raises privacy concerns.

Google, Apple and Facebook Inc. faced questions on mobile privacy in a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing last month. The companies also may face tougher European Union restrictions on the way they handle user-location data after a May opinion published by European Union privacy officials.

The case is In re Google Inc. Street View Electronic Communications Litigation, 10-2184, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

--Editors: Michael Hytha, Mary Romano

To contact the reporter on this story: Joel Rosenblatt in San Francisco at jrosenblatt@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net


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