A US appeals court has upheld a decision against Google and now claims the search giant must be held responsible for violating wiretapping laws. This decision comes after the California company appealed a previous ruling and argued that their collection of data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks was exempt from these laws. A panel of three judges ruled unanimously against Google, however, and now they must face all the charges brought against them.
In 2010 Google admitted that some of their Street View cars had siphoned off personal data from unsecured WiFi networks in residential areas. When accused of breaking wiretapping laws, Google said what they had inadvertently done was no worse than using someone’s network without permission. They agreed to a $7-million settlement over the case in March.
Google’s claim that the networks they accessed were open to the public did not sway the three judges who voted against the Android maker.
“Payload data transmitted over an unencrypted Wi-Fi network is not readily accessible to the general public,” wrote Judge Jay Bybee in the ruling, reported Bloomberg.
“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.”
Bybee went even further, stating that the natural end to Google’s argument would lead to “absurd results.” If leeching data from unsecured networks was as innocent as borrowing a neighbor’s network connection, said Bybee, there would be little to stop a hacker from sitting outside a person’s house, monitoring their traffic and intercepting emails.
“We are disappointed in the Ninth Circuit’s decision and are considering our next steps,” said Google in an email statement.
When Google Street View cars rolled past houses and small businesses, an algorithm was used to collect location data by asking wireless networks for their addresses. This system went beyond even this, however, intercepting emails and accessing other personal information without the user’s consent.
Following a complaint from the German government, Google looked into this system and found it was accessing more data than they originally intended. In May 2010 the company acknowledged their mistake and temporarily grounded their Street View cars.
Google often faces security and privacy charges in the US and all over the world for their bold and sometimes legally questionable practices. Though the company claims their collection of data was not intentional, it nonetheless raised the ire of privacy watchdogs who were already quick to call Google out on their behaviors.
“This appeals court decision is a tremendous victory for privacy rights. 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,” explains John Simpson, a privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog.
More recently, Google defended their email scanning practices by saying their customers can’t expect them not to read their emails before they’re sent.