In 2010, Google(s goog) revealed that the cars collecting location information for its Street View service were also slurping personal data from unsecured WiFi networks as the vehicles drove through residential neighborhoods. Google soon after apologized and explained that the data had been destroyed, but the company continues to face a nagging lawsuit over whether the cars’ activities violated the Wiretap Act, which forbids intercepting a person’s communications without their consent.
On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear Google’s petition that the lawsuit should be thrown out on the grounds that the WiFi information was available to the general public. The refusal means the case will return to a lower court where a judge will determine if the case should qualify to be heard as a class action.
The case drew widespread attention because it involved one of Google’s more notable privacy stumbles, and because the incident helped to define how the Wiretap Act — which was originally written to address telephone calls — should apply to communications in the digital age.
In the case of the Street View cars, the vehicles were able to get information not only about the name and location of the WiFi network itself (like the one you have in your house) but also, in the case of unsecured networks, the “payload” data traveling across that network, including emails and passwords.
Today, it’s unlikely that Google would be able to obtain much information this way, even if it tried, since most people now secure their WiFi network with a password, which makes it largely secure from passersby (or Google cars).
Now that Google has failed to win a motion to dismiss at the Supreme Court, the original judge will now determine if the 2010 incident should be certified as a class action. Google may also choose to settle the case instead.
Here’s a copy, via SearchEngineLand, of the 9th Circuit ruling which found that WiFi data was not “public”