Google May Owe You Money

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Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS

If Google put your house on Street View between 2007 and 2010, the company might (eventually) owe you money.

In a blow to Google, on Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California rejected the search giant’s request to dismiss a lawsuit over the company’s collection of personal data over private residential Wi-Fi networks. Google vehicles collected the data—including personal emails and passwords—as they drove past homes to photograph them for Street View, the system that creates photo panoramas for Google Maps.

The appeals court ruled that information passed over home Wi-Fi networks is private and protected under federal wiretapping law. Google had argued that Wi-Fi signals coming out of private homes are equivalent to radio communication and therefore legally accessible by the public. The Ninth Circuit didn’t agree. It deemed residential wireless communication private, an important step toward setting boundaries for privacy in an age where technology has moved far-faster than the law.

Google could still petition the Supreme Court or request an en banc hearing with all of the judges from the Ninth Circuit, but both moves would be difficult. “We are disappointed in the Ninth Circuit’s decision and are considering our next steps,” a Google spokesperson wrote to TIME in an email.

(MORE: Did Google Get Off Easy With $7 Million ‘Wi-Spy’ Settlement?)

If the case goes to trial, the lawyers will get their hands on exactly what Google collected, what the firm did with the data, and who was responsible. Jeffrey Kodroff, a Philadelphia lawyer and co-lead counsel in for the plaintiffs, is confident that is a likely outcome. Google will have to turn over a 600-gigabyte database of information it’s collected. Based on a rough analysis that estimates the average email consists of 2,000 to 10,000 bites of data, Kodroff says, that database could include 60 million emails.

Ultimately, Google could be liable to pay damages to millions of people—at a payout of $100 to $10,000 each, according to the wiretapping law. Even for Google, with its $50 billion cash stockpile, that would not be an insignificant sum. “This is potentially the single biggest wiretapping case in world history. They did this in tens of millions of American’s homes,” says Scott Cleland, a publisher of a Google watchdog site who consults for some of Google’s competitors.

If the jury or judge does rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the judge will determine the best way to get out information to as many people who could be part of the class as possible, which could come in the form of email, television or magazine advertisement.

Google has not exactly been straightforward about the personal information collected in Street View. After first denying it collected the information, Google then admitted it had, but called it a mistake, blaming it on the work of an engineer who collected it without the knowledge of his superiors. An FCC investigation fined Google $25,000 last year for failing to cooperate with their probe. And, in March, Google settled a suit over the personal information gathered through Street View with 37 states and the District of Columbia for $7 million.

Whatever happens with the trial going forward, the Ninth Circuit established legal precedent for privacy rights for email communication that hadn’t existed before. “[The ruling says] there are limits to what they can take from us,” says Kodroff, “That’s a major victory for us all.”

MORE: Google Says Those Who Email Gmail Users Have ‘No Legitimate Expectation of Privacy’

SEE ALSO:  The Big Surprise of Martin Luther King’s Speech 

31 comments
relativegames7
relativegames7

To those that defend google : if you leave your front door unlocked, does that mean that anyone can come and hang out in your home ? Further more, you probably don't think it would be creepy for people to just go to everyone's front doors and check if they're locked right ? Cause heck, if it's locked, why worry about a dozen people trying them out ?

Everyone thinks google won't use it for evil but think about government agencies. If they can produce a warrant they don't even have to spy on you, they can just get the pre-recorded data from google. You could say you have nothing to hide but privacy is not about hiding, it's about having a private life and it's a constitutional right.

triune
triune

"That's an amazing victory for us all." Are you kidding? That just reinforces the already present ignorance of people who setup unprotected wifi access points at home. The court would be better off ruling that public wifi is just like radio signals as Google proposed and telling citizens that they should encrypt/protect/make private their wifi networks. This would better serve the ignorant public as a whole protecting them from any thief/war driver passing by their house stealing emails!

RobertBain
RobertBain

Some blackhat engineer messed up big time. It's called War Driving for a reason. Don't use blackhat techniques if your working at Google.

US1776
US1776

Congratulations to the Ninth Circuit for respecting the 4th Amendment.


.

SeaSkiii
SeaSkiii

Then the NSA will owe us money too right?

mike3316
mike3316

Keep in mind folks ... the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is THE MOST overturned court of appeals in the country.  Don't be surprised if Google's argument, that loose wi-fi signals are no different than radio communication, doesn't gain traction they this goes to the SCotUS.

HodadMcRasta
HodadMcRasta

Google has completely abandoned its pledge to "do no evil." This is as conniving and malicious as the behavior of the NSA. And Time, you left out a very important detail: were any of these home wifi networks secured (password protected)? Seems like that might be relevant. 

BrianMueller
BrianMueller

Interesting where I live, in Ohio, if you have an open (unprotected) WiFi access point it's considered a "public hotspot" simply by your failure to turn on any protection.  This was done some years ago because businesses were trying to criminally prosecute people who used their WiFi when it was wide open.  Myself, I find that I agree with Google in this case.  If you have open un-encrypted access points then you are a public wifi hotspot plain and simple.  If I drive by and my phone or laptop picks up your connection then it's your fault.  Shame on you for not taking the time to read the directions on your access point or router.  My background is as a network and software engineer.

saxybug01
saxybug01

Wait...so the government who obtains an insane amount of our "metadata" told Google that it can't collect truly insignificant, an actual, metadata on consumers?  I can't actually wrap my head around that.  That's like hitting your kid while telling them not to hit.

GregJackson
GregJackson

So Google the company can be sued under wire tapping laws but the US GOVERNMENT can't?  Interesting. 

hollygirl757
hollygirl757

Let me just make a quick trade here. Aaaaannnnnd sold. Ok, now I'm outraged. Boooo Google. Give me money.

Sapar
Sapar

This is crazy....Google should be fined...no company should be allowed to get your personal information like this....

littleredtop
littleredtop

The safest place to be is where there is NO internet service; NO streets worth mapping; NO cell phone service; NO bears ,snakes or spiders; NO takers and only givers.  My research leads me to believe that the perfect location may be somewhere in New Zealand. 

jaxgrim
jaxgrim

Hey, that's the government's job!

Hotpuppy
Hotpuppy

Dear Author - it's BYTES, not bites.  Bites are what you do with food.  Bytes are a unit of data.

Hotpuppy
Hotpuppy

9th circuit court is wrong.  WiFi is licensed under part 15 of the FCC rules.  This means that it is a wireless data service.  Wireless means radio.  If the data is unencrypted it is the equivalent of standing on your roof top and shouting it.  It would not be subject to protection.  What Google has primarily used this data for is geo-location.  They noted the location of the WiFi networks and then used that as an easy way to locate Android devices.  It's smart, but not an invasion of privacy.  The lawyers pursuing this should be disbarred for frivolous harassment using the court as an instrument of terror.  It's time to rein in "legal activity" that smothers innovation and crimps the fair exercise of intellectual property rights (patent trolls).

life2death
life2death

With a pathetic 600GB of data its more than likely they just logged the MAC address, SSID and snr of the AP as they drove by. This is then used by your phone to "look" at where it is by downloading a few megabyte chunk of this database and comparing to what it sees to figure out where it is closer than GPS or the Cell network can. It doesn't have your email or other stuff, fear mongers.

US1776
US1776

@mike3316 

Personal, home wifi signals are not intended to be used as a public broadcast medium..

.

triune
triune

@HodadMcRasta FUD. No thanks. Google upheld their pledge to do no evil because even though they gathered this data, the didn't do anything inherently evil with it. Most likely, they were just anonymizing the data they collected and using it to learn wifi usage patterns or further advance some other similar technology.

HodadMcRasta
HodadMcRasta

@BrianMueller How did you determine that these wifi networks were unprotected? I would guess so, but this was not indicated in the article. And I know a person who leaves her wifi network unprotected in the spirit of sharing. Sure, this isn't something I would do, but does that choice warrant your criticism and your shame? She isn't the kind of person who would need to read the directions, either. She's a cracker jack web programmer. 

mike3316
mike3316

But its okay for the government to do it.

GregJackson
GregJackson

@Hotpuppy Its obviously not frivolous if a Circuit Judge agrees with the lawyers.  It would still be an invasion of privacy as the signals are generating from INSIDE a house.  Unreasonably seizing that information for any purpose would certainly seem to violoate a person's 4th Amendment right.  Of maybe this as well?

§ 15.9 Prohibition against eavesdropping.

Except for the operations of law enforcement officers conducted under lawful authority, no person shall use, either directly or indirectly, a device operated pursuant to the provisions of this part for the purpose of overhearing or recording the private conversations of others unless such use is authorized by all of the parties engaging in the conversation.

Since their wifi is like yelling from the rooftops and Google is not a law enforcement agency, it would seem the collection of any data over these wifi signals would be ILLEGAL!

triune
triune

@life2death I wouldn't be surprised if the lawyers were paid by Microsoft to spread more FUD about Google. It seems to be working too as a lot of technologically non-savvy people are eating this stuff up.

triune
triune

@US1776 @mike3316 FALSE. A public access point is just that, A PUBLIC ACCESS POINT. If you want to setup a PRIVATE wifi access point you are free to do so. But until then, if you leave it un-password protected and open to the public, your access point is just that... PUBLIC.

triune
triune

@HodadMcRasta @BrianMueller Given how quickly Google was driving around, I doubt they had enough time to crack WEP/WPA keys for any of the protected networks. Everyone knows this only applies to public unencrypted networks.

BrianMueller
BrianMueller

@HodadMcRasta @BrianMueller Admittedly, I made an assumption that they were not breaking into networks, as neither the original article, nor the complaint of the prosecution says anything about violating laws related to computer hacking - only eavesdropping.  In light of a lack of even a hint that they have somehow cracked the encryption on the WiFi hardware I think it was very safe for me to assume that they were only gathering information on open networks.  Further, even if the WiFi was using older WEP encryption standards with a weak key (64 or 128bit) it would take some time (between 5 and 10 minutes) to use the flaws in the system to crack the key and open up the network (http://www.howtogeek.com/167783/htg-explains-the-difference-between-wep-wpa-and-wpa2-wireless-encryption-and-why-it-matters/) Therefore, unless the google camera car was sitting outside of each found network for awhile I don't see that this would be likely.  So, in conclusion - I think I made a valid assumption based on knowledge of the WiFi systems.

Secondly, if you want to leave your WiFi unlocked - go ahead (of your friend for that matter).  However, I would then expect your friend to implement some other form of protection (VPN, PGP, Firewalls, etc) to ensure that she is "walled off" from the rest of the people using the connection.  Otherwise, yes, if she gets some info flying about and wants to whine about it - shame on her.

It seems they have simply applied the same laws that say that you cannot listen in on a cordless phone call or baby monitor with your radio shack scanner.

triune
triune

@GregJackson @Hotpuppy Okay, its more similar to leaving all the windows and doors in your house open and then yelling out your name and personal information as loudly as you can. Anyone driving by who hears this noise is invading your privacy, I think not. You're just an idiot for yelling out all this info with your doors and windows open. Try closing them and locking down your wifi network while your at it :P