Google Loses Appeal in Street View Data Privacy Case

Google asked a California appeals court to rule that its Street View data collection from 2007 to 2010 didn't violate any wiretapping laws, but the appeals court rejected the argument.

Google has lost its latest court appeal over its former practices of collecting unsecured WiFi personal data from unsuspecting citizens as its Street View vehicles drove around communities throughout the United States.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco has ruled that a lawsuit accusing Google of the practice can proceed, ending Google's latest hopes of squashing the legal challenge, according to a Sept. 10 story by The New York Times. Google attempted to get the case thrown out by saying the WiFi communications it captured were "readily accessible to the general public" and not in violation of federal wiretapping laws, the Times reported. The lower court had rejected that argument previously, and on Tuesday the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit did as well, according to the Times.

Google had argued that its conduct was not intrusive and that it had simply collected information that was not secured and therefore freely available, according to the story. "The unanimous, 35-page decision by a three-judge panel found little merit in Google's legal maneuverings, stating at one critical point that the company was basically inventing meanings in an effort to declare its actions legal," the Times reported.

Kathryn E. Barnett, an attorney with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, one of the law firms working for the plaintiffs, told the Times that the appeals court's rejection of Google's arguments "says that when you are in your home, you have a right to privacy in your communications. Someone just can't drive by and seize them."

A Google spokesperson told eWEEK that the company is "disappointed in the 9th Circuit's decision and are considering our next steps."

In April, Google was hit with an $189,167 fine in Germany for Street View data collection that occurred there without disclosure to affected residents as Street View vehicles combed German streets collecting information for its maps back from 2007 to 2010.

The Street View program came under scrutiny both in the United States and in Europe after it was learned that Google was gathering the information street by street between 2007 and 2010. The company apparently collected unsecured WiFi data as the vehicles drove around cities and neighborhoods, including personal information such as passwords, emails, text messages, users' Internet usage histories and other information, which was retrievable from unsecured home and business networks. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the Street View vehicles had collected more than 200GB of such payload data.

Google officials maintained that the data on the WiFi networks was being used to help Google create better location-based services, after initially denying that payload data had been collected. They later admitted that the Street View cars had collected such personal information and laid the blame at the feet of a rogue engineer who they said put that capability into the software on his own accord.

German officials were the first to uncover Google's collection of such data from WiFi routers in Germany back in 2010. Soon after, Google said it had collected similar information through Street View in other nations around the world.

A similar case in the United States was resolved in March when a $7 million settlement was reached between Google and the U.S. government to end a probe into the Street View imaging program, which for three years collected personal information on users wirelessly as the Street View vehicles drove around taking photographs. The $7 million fine against Google was designed to resolve investigations that were under way by some 30 state attorneys general over the controversial Street View program.