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.
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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.”
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