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Every Wi-Fi User in US May Have $10,000 Wiretapping Claim Against Google

Every Wi-Fi User in US May Have $10,000 Wiretapping Claim Against Google

In what may have just become the largest class-action lawsuit in American history, the U.S. Supreme Court denied hearing the appeal of a lower court ruling that Google maps’ “Street View” cars were not exempt from state and federal wiretapping laws. 

The cars had vacuumed up Wi-Fi e-mail messages, user passwords, and other communications from 2007 to 2010. With a consolidated class-action lawsuit seeking up to $10,000 for each affected private Wi-Fi user captured by Google, lawyers are about to go national with billions of dollars of claims for potential damages to virtually every U.S. e-mail user.

Wiretapping refers to interception of telephonic voice communications, and it has been strictly regulated by states for over a century and became a federal crime under the “The Communications Act of 1934.” As communications methods became more sophisticated, wiretapping methods followed suit, and the laws regulating wiretapping have come to cover cellular phones and electronic communications, such as e-mail.

Under federal law, it is illegal and subject to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for any third party to intercept any telephonic or electronic communication between other individuals. However, if one of the parties to the conversation records or consents to the recording, the interception of the communication is generally not barred under federal law and is also permissible under many state laws. But at least 11 states criminally prohibit recording any conversation, regardless of consent.

Google has vigorously fought the case unsuccessfully through the District Court, Court of Appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court to block the litigation since 2010. Google tried and failed to convince a trial judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals panel in San Francisco that it was legal to intercept the Wi-Fi networks, because open Wi-Fi networks are the equivalent to AM/FM radio transmissions. 

With the Supreme Court denial, legal action shifted back to a Federal Judge in Mountain View, California, where, last week, lawyers for the 22 people named in the suit, “Google Street View Electronic Communications Litigation” won a discovery phase ruling that the Silicon Valley-based company must give access and work cooperatively with opposing lawyers to determine what’s on the hard drives. 

If any of the litigants can pinpoint any of their personal data in the massive cache of communications captured from private Wi-Fi networks by Street View, their lawyers will have established Google’s wiretapping liability.

“There’s a good reason Google is bringing every potential defense,” Alan Butler, senior counsel at Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed a legal brief against Google, told Bloomberg. “It has to be the biggest wiretap case in U.S. history.”

Google says there’s little chance the plaintiffs will find records of their Wi-Fi communications, even though their homes appear on Google Maps and Street View. But the company was forced to admit that the code in the software on Street View cars was programed to capture and store data transmissions from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks five times a second.

The Federal Communications Commission already fined Google $25,000 in 2012 for impeding a U.S. investigation into its collection of wireless network data for its Street View project. The FCC imposed the fine after determining that Google had collected personal information without permission and had then deliberately not co-operated with the FCC’s investigation.

Google settled a multi-state probe of Street View data collection last year by agreeing to pay a $7 million fine. The company has also been fined for wiretapping by Germany for $186,000, France for $129,000, and Italy in April for $1.3 million. 

Google, whose slogan is “Don’t Be Evil,” has made sworn statements in the litigation that it never used the data in any products or services. Google has offered an apology to settle the federal class-action litigation, but the litigants declined the generous offer. 

The case is: In Re Google Street View Electronic Communications Litigation, 10-cv-02184, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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