Street View snooping could have been wiretapping, judge rules

A California federal judge has refused to accept Google’s argument that sniffing packets from an open- unencrypted Wifi network can’t possibly be described as wiretapping.

Google landed itself on hot water last year when it was discovered that the company’s Street View cars had been snaffling data from peoples’ networks. The company blamed it on a rogue software engineer.

As firther details emerged, a series of lawsuits were filed against the company, and later consolidated into the current class action suit.

Yesterday, district judge James Ware dismissed allegations that Google had broken state laws, but allowed the claim that it had violated wiretap laws to go ahead. He made a distinction between accessing a person’s Wifi – for example, to send or receive an email – and actually sniffing the individual packets to capture data.

The conclusion hinges on whether or not the Wifi data was ‘readily accessible to the public’, as Google claims. The judge concluded it was not.

“Unlike in the traditional radio services context, communications sent via Wifi technology, as pleaded by Plaintiffs, are not designed or intended to be public,” he ruled.

“Rather, as alleged, Wifi technology shares a common design with cellular phone technology, in that they both use radio waves to transmit communications, however they are both designed to send communications privately, as in solely to select recipients, and both types of technology are architected in order to make intentional monitoring by third parties difficult.”

Acepting Google’s argument wouldn’t just have affected those of us who happen to have a Street View car knocking about the place. It could, potentially, have made it perfectly legal for anyone to go into a coffee shop with open Wifi and eavesdrop on the personal communications of anybody in there.

FireSheep users, be warned.