N.D. Cal.’s Chief Judge Ware has permitted the Wiretap Act claims against Google to go ahead in the consolidated litigation over the collection of Wi-Fi data by Google’s Street View vehicles. Google attempted to argue that it could not be held liable under the Wiretap Act because the collected data was “readily accessible to the general public.” Judge Ware disagreed in a holding that could have implications for how courts understand privacy and security.
Google maintains a fleet of Street View vehicles used primarily to take photographs of public roads. Google also used these vehicles to collect Wi-Fi data, most likely to map out the locations of Wi-Fi networks for use in triangulating the location of mobile devices. Google claimed it was interested only in the public SSIDs (names) of the Wi-Fi networks, but that in collecting this data, it inadvertently captured sensitive private information such as e-mails and passwords.
Several Wi-Fi network owners subsequently brought suit for violations of the Wiretap Act, as amended by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and related state law claims. Google moved to dismiss on the ground that ECPA did not protect communications on a Wi-Fi network configured such that communications were “readily accessible to the general public.”