Google’s Payload Data Sniffing Activities Snagged by Wiretap Act

Google’s Street View feature provides street-level photographs of places shown on Google Maps.  Google acquired these photographs by sending camera-mounted Street View cars out on public roads to take photographs.  Google also equipped the Street View cars with Wi-Fi antennas to collect data transmitted by Wi-Fi networks in homes and business located along Street View car routes.  In addition to collecting network data, such as the name of the network and the router’s unique number, the Street View cars collected “payload data,” such as emails, usernames, passwords, videos and documents, sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.  Google collected this data between 2007 and 2010, has discontinued the practice, apologized, and made the personal data collected inaccessible. 

Several class action lawsuits were filed against Google as a result of its collection of payload data from the unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.  The class actions were consolidated to a single class action in the Northern District of California.  The class actions plaintiffs claim that Google violated the federal Wiretap Act (18 U.S.C. §2511) in collecting the data from the Wi-Fi networks.  Google moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it lawfully intercepted “electronic communications” that are “readily accessible to the general public.”  The district court denied Google’s motion to dismiss.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling.

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