Late last month, the U.S. District for the Northern District of California denied Google’s motion to dismiss a putative class action alleging that the company accessed and used data transmitted through unencrypted Wi-Fi signals (Re Google Inc. Street View Electronic Communications Litigation). Google acquired the data through its Google Street View program, which relied on specially designed Google Street View vehicles to acquire 360° panoramic images of streets across the United States, Canada and other countries. These Google Street View vehicles also featured advanced technology that allowed them to access and store data transmitted through unencrypted Wi-Fi signals.
Ultimately, Google’s motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ claims that it violated the federal Wiretap Act was denied. Of particular interest was the court’s interpretation of the statute with respect to Wi-Fi signals. While the Wiretap Act prohibits intentionally intercepting certain electronic communication, the statute provides an exemption for communications that are “readily accessible to the general public”. In considering the applicable provision, which predates the ubiquity of wireless internet technology, the Court compared Wi-Fi technology to that of cellular phones. Specifically, while both use radio waves to transmit communication, both are intended to be private. Ultimately, therefore, the Court found that the plaintiffs’ pleading supported a claim that communications sent via Wi-Fi technology were not “readily accessible to the general public”.
Google quickly indicated that it will appeal the ruling. The widespread use of unencrypted Wi-Fi signals ensures that this case will be closely watched as it progresses.