Google: Consumers Not Entitled to ‘Windfall’ Compensation In WiFi Snooping Lawsuit

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Remember the brouhaha over Google’s Street View cars collecting personally identifiable information (including emails and Internet browsing activity) from WiFi networks that weren’t password-protected? The U.S. government intervened (the Federal Communications Commission even fined the search giant $25,000 in 2012 for refusing to cooperate with the investigation).

But did you know that Google also ended up in a class-action lawsuit?

Now the company’s attorneys allege that consumers who do sue Google for eavesdropping over open WiFi networks are not “entitled to a windfall.” Google wrote in brand-new court filings in San Francisco that “plaintiffs configured their WiFi networks to be open and to broadcast data at least as far as the public street.”

‘Open and Broadcast’

That means Google is claiming that people who have unsecured WiFi networks have no expectation of privacy, let alone financial compensation for having their private communications intercepted.

It sounds alarming, but is that such a stretch? Just what is considered fair game when it comes to open radio waves? Remember, WiFi signals are open — anyone within range can “listen in” — which is why a personal VPN like PRIVATE WiFi is so critical in wireless, unencrypted hotspots.

All that is needed is a receiver tuned to the right frequency to intercept all communications to and from everyone in a WiFi hotspot. It’s called “sniffing,” and it means that the guy sitting a few tables away in a coffee shop, in a hotel room down the hall, or sitting a few rows away in an airplane can access everything you send or receive.

Sniffing, Radiowaves, and Privacy Expectations

Google says it did not engage in illegal wiretapping because the data was unencrypted — and even the FCC (despite the $25,000 fine) originally agreed the company was not guilty of wiretapping because the unencrypted WiFi signals were “readily accessible to the general public.”

But last year a federal judge in California changed course, saying Google could be held liable for wiretapping damages because the FCC’s legal interpretation was intended for police scanners and similar radio services, not for WiFi networks.

Time will tell what privacy ramifications this will have on Big Data, but for now, this will continue to be a very costly legal battle for Google.

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.