Everyone’s used it before—the inconspicuous option on Google Maps that allows you to see, well, almost anywhere. Google Street View, which now spans all seven continents and more than fifty countries, allows its users to “explore world landmarks, discover natural wonders and step inside locations such as museums, arenas, restaurants and small businesses with 360-degree images.” But it also allows browsers to see the coffee shop just up the street, that store they’ve never been to before, and even their own house. Google Street View touts that its collection, which began in 2007, now consists of more than five million miles of the world’s side streets, main roads, highways, and other attractions. But its worldly conquests have, thus far, come at a price.
Google, for instance, was recently fined 1 million euros (1.4 million dollars) by Italy’s privacy regulator following complaints from the Italian public that the Google Street View cars—vehicles known as “Trekkers” equipped with 360 degree panoramic cameras—were not easily identifiable, making it unclear when a photo was being taken. Although a Google Street View car snapping pictures throughout the city may seem relatively harmless, it’s the process of gathering such pictures that has raised concerns of possible violations of federal law.
Not only are the Google Street View cars equipped with top notch cameras, they also have to ability to record names and MAC addresses linked to local and private wireless routers. The car uses its Wi-Fi hardware to improve its mapping service. The car’s unique data collecting capabilities led Google to court in 2010, when several plaintiffs brought suit against the company seeking remedies pursuit the Wiretap Act. Established in 1968, the Wiretap Act prohibits the interception of wireless, oral, or electronic communication.
Google argued that since its data collection involved open Wi-Fi networks, the Wiretap Act did not apply. But the District Court rejected this argument, finding that Wi-Fi should not be considered a publicly available service that qualifies for the Wiretap Act exception. Although Google claimed it never used the 600 gigabytes of collected data, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling against technology giant in September 2013.
This week, Google appealed to the US Supreme Court in hopes it will dismiss the lawsuit and find that the collection of unencrypted Wi-Fi data does not violate the Wiretap Act.
This week, Google appealed to the US Supreme Court in hopes it will dismiss the lawsuit and find that the collection of unencrypted Wi-Fi data does not violate the Wiretap Act. Interested parties, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s decision by arguing that Wi-Fi communications are not exempt under the Wiretap Act because Wi-Fi networks are usually used privately in the home and communications are typically sent from one specific device to another, unlike publicly available radio communications that are meant to qualify as an exemption under the Act.
Many are concerned that if the US Supreme Court were to adopt Google’s argument that the collection of unencrypted Wi-Fi information is legal, such a ruling could impact the attempted collection of personal information, such as passwords, by criminals. On the other hand, opponents of the Ninth Circuit ruling are concerned that it may limit security scanning used legitimately for research. The Supreme Court will provide a response to Google’s writ of certiorari by the end of this month.