Be Careful Google Ears What You Hear

I’m kind of paraphrasing a song that I learned from some nuns 100 years ago when I was in first grade. But Google recently got some bad news in a case pending in federal court in California over its street view app. It’s no secret that Google uses fairly sophisticated camera technology on “Google Street View” vehicles to record images for the app. Less well known is the fact that those Google vehicles also collect Wi-Fi data. A class of California residents brought a class action suit to challenge the practice. The complaint stated claims under the federal wiretap act, the California wiretap act and the California unfair business practices act. Google moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the Wi-Fi transmissions were “readily accessible” and thus, any interception did not violate the law. Google also argued that the California claims were preempted by the federal act. Google got a mixed judgment from the court. The good news for Google? The court found that the federal wiretap act preempted California’s similar statute. That’s a good result in this case, and as precedent. Google would rather not have to contend with 50 different statutes as it implements the app going forward. And while the court found that the federal act did not preempt the California unfair business practices act, it also found that the privacy claims in this case were not covered by the California statute. That statute covers business losses primarily. The privacy invasion alleged here did not fall under that statute. The bad news for Google? The court rejected its argument that the Wi-Fi transmissions were “readily accessible.” The court found that the exception for “readily accessible” transmissions was intended to cover traditional radio transmissions, which were never intended to be private. It did not apply to radio like transmissions — such as cell phone communications — that carry an expectation of privacy. The court found that the “readily accessible” exception applies only to electronic communications that cannot be fairly classified as “traditional radio services.” All of which means that Google may want to reconsider exactly what information its Street View Vehicles actually collect.