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Google (NSDQ: GOOG) apologized long ago for the accidental collection of personal WiFi data by its Street View cars, but the snafu continues to produce headaches for the company. Now a San Jose federal judge has refused to throw out a class-action lawsuit against Google arguing that the data breach violated federal wiretapping laws.
This lawsuit is one of the more closely-watched ones in privacy circles, because it appears to be the first time a court has considered the issue of whether unencrypted WiFi data sent over public networks can be protected by privacy laws or not. It’s quite easy to tap into unencrypted WiFi networks in public places such as coffee shops; something that was made very clear when a piece of free software called Firesheep was released in October.
Google had argued that because the data is being transmitted, unencrypted, over public airwaves, it can’t possibly be considered “wiretapping” to gather that data, and the lawsuit should be thrown out. But both sides in this lawsuit agreed that interception of a conversation on a cordless telephone-also an unencrypted over public radio spectrum-would be illegal eavesdropping.
U.S. District Judge James Ware did throw out a variety of state-law claims against Google. Privacy lawyers who sue tech companies tend to allege that a hodgepodge of different laws were broken, and Ware is making clear that he’s only interesting in hearing the allegation that Google broke the main federal wiretapping law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The plaintiffs still have a long way to go to prove their case here; they haven’t even established whether the suit can be a class action or not. Today’s ruling only means the lawsuit can proceed.
A Google spokeswoman responded to today’s development with an e-mail that sounded like the company is considering appealing this order. The statement said: “We believe these claims are without merit and that the Court should have dismissed the wiretap claim just as it dismissed the plaintiffs’ other claims. We’re still evaluating our options at this preliminary stage.”
» Judge Ware’s Order on Motion to Dismiss [PDF]