Google Street View to go to court

A reindeer in Lebesby, Norway. One of many great accidental wildlife shots from Google Maps.

Is it illegal to intercept signals from open wi-fi networks? One federal appeals court thinks it might be.

In 2010, Google revealed that their Street View cars, famous for capturing 360° photographs of locations around the world, had accidentally also collected data from unencrypted wi-fi networks. For several years, the cars gathered more than 600 gigabytes of usernames, passwords, and even emails from nearby homes and businesses.

When the mistake became public, several sued the tech giant for violating their privacy. Google apologized and offered to destroy their data, but motioned to dismiss the wiretapping charges. They claim that the data they collected was readily accessible to the general public, like the signals you can receive with a radio. Such signals are considered outside the scope of the Wiretap Law.

That motion was rejected last month.

“Wi-Fi transmissions are not ‘readily accessible’ to the ‘general public’ because most of the general public lacks the expertise to intercept and decode payload data transmitted over a Wi-Fi network,” wrote circuit judge Jay Bybee in the decision. “Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi network, members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network.”

Google said it was disappointed with the decision, which some are already calling a landmark in computer privacy and security.

The case’s verdict will ultimately resolve whether or not wi-fi is a kind of communication protected under wiretapping laws. This would make it illegal for anyone to capture data from open wi-fi networks. (It may also cost Google billions in fines.)

Some groups consider the ruling good for privacy and for those who wish to protect their data. However, the decision has also provoked outcry from certain technology experts. They worry that the decision may place hackers and security researchers at risk for collecting unencrypted data – even if they don’t do so deliberately. For an experienced hacker, they say, intercepting wi-fi signals is easy, even trivial.

“Open WiFi is like a window without curtains, or a postcard,” wrote security expert Lance Cottrell in a blog post. “You are putting the data out there where anyone can trivially see it. Thinking otherwise is willful ignorance.”

Daniel Oliver, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says that the case might violate technological neutrality. If the court rules that Google was in the wrong, they are discriminating against wireless technology, treating it differently from other types of open communication.

“It’s the first time the Wiretap Act has been interpreted this way,” Oliver told ComputerWorld. “The Wiretap Act says you can’t eavesdrop or tap into a conversation. But if the communications is not protected, then it is clearly not a wiretap. If you are broadcasting your message in the clear and if somebody else receives that message, it is not their fault [for receiving it].”


Aviva Hope Rutkin is a science and technology reporter in the Boston area. She currently writes for the MIT Technology Review. Follow her @realavivahr.

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