Google's Wi-Fi sniffing activities still at issue in lawsuit

Four years after acknowledging that it mistakenly gathered payload data from open Wi-Fi networks at the same time it collected publicly broadcast SSID information and MAC addresses for use in future geolocation services, Google still faces a lawsuit filed in federal court regarding its alleged collection of personal information.  

At the root of the current legal action is data from two hard drives currently held inside the federal courthouse in San Francisco, according to a Bloomberg article. The bottom line is that 22 people who sued Google need to identify their personal information in a cache of data collected from private Wi-Fi networks by Google's Street View cars. Finding that information, which might include usernames, passwords and emails, will open the door to the pursuit of billions of dollars of damages from Google. But if the sought-after data is not uncovered, then the plaintiffs cannot prove they were victimized, meaning they would have no standing to sue.

Alan Butler, senior counsel at Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Bloomberg that this "has to be the biggest wiretap case in U.S. history."

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, consolidates multiple suits that were filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Oregon. Google tried unsuccessfully to get the U.S. Supreme Court to block the lawsuit because, the company said, its Street View data collecting did not constitute an unauthorized interception of electronic communications under the federal Wiretap Act.

In the latest development, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer last week determined that Google must collaborate with plaintiffs' lawyers to assess what information is included on the two hard drives. Both sides were given 28 days to agree on a technical expert to review the drives or else one will be appointed.

Lead plaintiff Benjamin Joffe has sought a class action against Google, with the lawsuit asking $10,000 for each affected Wi-Fi user whose information was collected by Google Street View cars from 2008-2010. That could total millions of users. Bloomberg noted that class-action status for the case has not yet been addressed though.

In March 2013, Google agreed to pay a $7 million fine in a multistate settlement regarding the Wi-Fi data collection. Bloomberg noted Google was also fined for similar actions internationally, with Germany ordering a penalty of 145,000 euros ($186,000), France imposing a penalty of 100,000 euros and Italy fining the company 1 million euros.

For more:
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Courthouse News Service article

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