The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a Google challenge to a lawsuit that alleges the search giant spied on individuals by collecting personal information from private Wi-Fi networks while recording Street View data from its cars. Google is being accused of violating the US Wiretap Act and now faces a late 2015 trial.
As is always the case in such refusals, the US Supreme Court did not comment on the ruling or explain its decision in any way.
Privacy advocates began complaining about Street View and the weird Google cars driving around in their neighborhoods as soon as the service started, back in 2007. "You can see people in their yards and even in their homes," I wrote at the time. "You can see license plate numbers clearly. You can even see some Stanford co-eds sunbathing in bikinis if you're so inclined." Google said originally that it would remove any offending personal images upon request, but over time it moved to automatically blur faces, license plates and other incriminating imagery.
Within a few years, controversy over Street View had settled down in the United States, and had of course moved to Europe, which such things are taken even more seriously. But then Google was caught capturing "payload data" as its Street View cars roamed around our streets. That is, in addition to recording photo imagery, the cars were in fact sniffing private Wi-Fi networks in homes and businesses and collecting any data they could find as well. They stole email messages, passwords, web histories, text messages and other data during this collection.
"We screwed up," Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted at the opening of Google I/O 2010. "I'm not going to make any excuses about it." Among the many excuses that Google did in fact make for this inexcusable exercise was that a "rogue engineer" was responsible. It also incorrectly declared that the data was taken "mistakenly." It had been collecting the data for over two years by that point.
The uproar was immediate and global. But here in the United States, law makers local and federal demanded answers, and wondered aloud whether Google's actions were illegal. Legal experts agreed they were, and the firm was accused of violating federal wiretap laws. Several lawsuits sprung up in the wake of this declaration, and they were consolidated into a single case in mid-2011 that is awaiting class action status. Google paid $7 million to settle a case brought against it by 38 US states and the District of Columbia, and agreed to destroy the collected data. But the private lawsuit remains.
After a federal appeals court upheld a federal court ruling—that Google's data collection was indeed a violation of the US Wiretap Act—Google argued to the US Supreme Court in an attempt to avoid a trial that Wi-Fi networks are covered by an exception in the Wiretap Act regarding radio signals.
The Supreme Court has neither agreed nor disagreed with that assessment. It has simply opted not to hear Google's case, meaning that the class action lawsuit can continue to trial.
"We're disappointed that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case," a Google spokesperson said.