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Google May Catch a Big Whiff of Wiretap Act in WiFi Sniffing Case

Google May Catch a Big Whiff of Wiretap Act in WiFi Sniffing Case

Google has failed to strike down charges that it violated federal law in snooping on various open WiFi networks while collecting data for its Street View project last year. The company acknowledges that equipment in its Streetview cars accessed data from personal WiFi routers in buildings as they roamed public roadways, though the search giant insists it was done on accident.

By Rachelle Dragani
07/05/11 11:15 AM PT

A federal judge recently refused to dismiss charges against Google from July 2010 which claim the company violated the Federal Wiretap Act. At the same time, the court threw out accusations that the search engine giant broke state laws in an accidental data breach.

In what's being popularly referred to as the Google Wi-Spy incident, Google Street View cars gathered personal data from open WiFi networks while driving on public roadways to collect broader data for the Google Street View project.

When it was discovered the info was obtained, the company immediately apologized and promised to erase whatever personal data remained. It was unexpected, then, that U.S. District Court Judge James Ware refuse to throw out the charges against Google in violation of the Federal Wiretap Act.

The court decision could set a precedent for legal regulations on information-gathering and individual privacy, since current laws often lag behind advancing technologies and a growing body of information present online.

Since the data was apparently gathered by accident in the interest of creating an innovative product, it's unlikely Google will go on the defensive and argue it has a right to this information.

"They're likely to be as transparent as possible and essentially will abide by whatever is determined. They're not going to fight something like this; they don't want to look like they're trying to invade individual's privacy. They're just doing macro data aggregation and not looking for individual info," Clay Moran, an analyst at Benchmark Capital, told TechNewsWorld.

Security Breaches: Sign of the Times

Security breaches are an unfortunate consequence of our increasingly digital private lives. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are full of private information and conversations, as are as cellphone records, e-mail accounts, online banking information or consumer purchase data.

"We've moved to a world where technology is very involved with our privacy. As we continue to put more privacy-related data into our digital assets and companies that are their safeguards, we're much more at risk," Mike Murray, managing partner at MAD Security, told TechNewsWorld.

It's often not a matter of whether security breaches will continue to occur, it's a matter of when. The issue then will become how users can reset and recover from personal data loss.

"Companies aren't perfect, and Google proved that here. Other mistakes will get made," said Murray.

Legal Issues Moving Forward

The quick, quiet evolution into such private digital assets has made it difficult for legal regulations to keep up with security protections.

If Google is found guilty, possible consequences could be a fine and reparations. Especially harsh punitive measures are unlikely if the snooping was indeed done on accident, but the case could be precedent-setting for companies that are gathering information in innovative or untested ways.

"The question becomes how do we incent companies, coming from both an economic and corrective perspective. You don't want to let everybody off, but at the same time you can't shut down business because they made a couple mistakes. The decisions that are made in this case will impact where these privacy issues are going," said Murray.

Technological law cases often become tricky, especially when government entities are involved. Government agencies are often behind on legal technology issues. It becomes murkier if the case goes on for sevearl years, considering that new technologies sometimes boom and burst in months.

"Hopefully this comes out on the side of enabling business at the same time as protecting individual privacies, and that's a hard line to balance," said Murray.


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