Google is asking a federal appellate court to dismiss a privacy lawsuit stemming from the company's admission that its Street View cars collected URLs, passwords and emails sent over unencrypted WiFi networks.
The company argues that the interceptions did not violate the federal wiretap law because the networks were not password-protected. The company says the 1986 federal statute, which pre-dates the modern Internet era, generally allows companies to intercept "readily accessible" radio transmissions.
"Because Wi-Fi transmissions are 'radio communications,' they are expressly defined by the Wiretap Act as 'readily accessible to the general public,' and their acquisition is not unlawful unless one of the statute’s specific exceptions applies," Google argues in papers filed last month with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case stems from Google's acknowledgment that it collected payload data -- including passwords, URLs of sites visited, and emails -- that was sent over unencrypted WiFi networks. Google apologized for the interception and said it intended to destroy the data. Still, the company's statement triggered investigations abroad and in the U.S. about whether Google violated privacy laws, including the federal wiretap law.
Google's statements also resulted in more than a dozen potential class-action lawsuits, which were consolidated into one case in federal court in San Jose, Calif. The lawsuits allege that Google violated various laws, including the federal wiretap, by collecting the payload data.
Google asked U.S. District Court Judge James Ware to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that transmissions sent through open networks were accessible, and therefore not subject to the wiretap law's prohibitions.
Last year Ware rejected that request, noting that the material sent over the networks could not be read without "sophisticated technology."
He wrote that the consumers who were suing alleged that the networks were "configured to render the data packets, or electronic communications, unreadable and inaccessible without the use of rare packet sniffing software," which was "outside the purview of the general public."
Google immediately appealed that ruling to the 9th Circuit; the class-action lawsuit has been put on hold while the appellate court considers the issue.