Google Faces Paying Out ‘Billions Of Dollars’ After Appeal Court Rules Privacy Campaigners Can Sue Over Illegal Data Gathering With Its Street View Cars

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U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upholds federal court’s ruling

Firm is being sued by users who claim their privacy was violated by Google Street View cars which gathered information via Wi-Fi networks

Google acted illegally when it collected data on people’s online activities through their Wi-Fi systems, the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled – leaving them wide open to damages claims which could total billions of dollars.

The court’s decision is a setback for the web giant, which gathered the information via its Street View cars, and other firms which rely on collecting large amounts of data.

Campaigners hailed the ruling, saying it was a ‘landmark decision for internet privacy’ which established that Wi-Fi networks were private.

The decision announced yesterday by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco is the latest twist in Google’s long-running battle to avoid legal action over the date collection, which it claims was a mistake which has now ended.

Upholding an earlier ruling by a federal court, the appeal judges wrote: ‘The payload data transmitted over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks that was captured by Google included emails, usernames, passwords, images, and documents.’

Google argued that its activities were exempt from wiretap laws, because data transmitted over Wi-Fi is a ‘radio communication’ which is ‘readily accessible to the public’.

But the court wrote: ‘Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi network, members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network.’

A spokesman for the company said after the announcement that lawyers for Google ‘disappointed in the 9th Circuit’s decision and are considering our next steps’.

Street View cars travel the world photographing streets for the firm’s Google Maps website – but unbeknownst to householders, the cars also collected detailed information on personal communication and web browsing between 2008 and 2010.

‘This appeals court decision is a tremendous victory for privacy rights,’ said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. ‘It means Google can’t suck up private communications from people’s Wi-Fi networks and claim their “Wi-Spying” was exempt from federal wiretap laws.

‘Because Google’s “Wi-Spy” activity was so extensive, the potential damages could amount to billions of dollars.’

Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called it ‘a landmark decision for internet privacy.’

He said: ‘Users should be protected when a company tries to capture data that travels between their laptop and their printer in their home.’

Earlier this year Google settled a lawsuit for $7million after attorney generals of 37 states sued over the alleged invasion of privacy.

A number of plaintiffs have joined a class-action suit against the firm which is now free to continue after the appeals court’s decision.

After the data-collection was discovered in 2010 by a German official, Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted that the company had ‘screwed up’.

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