Google Street View case shows challenges posed by watchdogs

Google loses its appeal in the Street View privacy lawsuit, highlighting the difficulties that counsel can face dealing with consumer watchdog groups

For Google, the recent ruling by a U.S. appeals court concerning the tech giant’s Street View program represents both bad news and even worse news. 

The court upheld a district court’s decision stating that data collected from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks is not exempt under federal wiretap laws. This defeat in court represents the bad news. The worse news? These kinds of victories give confidence and momentum to consumer watchdog groups, and that can spell trouble for attorneys that represent Google and other companies like it.

The plaintiffs in the case contended that Google violated privacy laws when it collected information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks while mapping streets from 2007 to 2010. Google contended that this data collection did not violate the Wiretap Act because Wi-Fi signals were readily accessible to the public, like radio transmissions.

But the court disagreed stating that, unlike a radio, which requires no technical knowledge to operate, Wi-Fi data can only be intercepted and decoded with specialized equipment and skills.

The data collected by Google included SSID numbers, and, in some cases, usernames, passwords and content. Earlier this year, the tech company settled with attorneys general from over 30 states, incurring a $7 million fine in the process.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case include a non-profit group called Consumer Watchdog. John M. Simpson, a spokesperson for that group, stated on the Consumer Watchdog website: “Once again it looks like Google, the serial privacy violator, is buying its way out of a jam with what for the Internet giant is pocket change.”

For general counsel and outside attorneys that represent large firms such as Google, these watchdog groups can be a challenge. Often, these nonprofit groups are well funded and relentless in their pursuit of their own agendas. These groups put tremendous scrutiny on specific aspects of a company’s dealings, often forcing businesses to argue a litany of cases over a long period.

In fact, there is a website devoted to watching Consumer Watchdog. Consumerwatchgodwatch.com claims that the organization is funded by special interest groups and corporations and lacks the transparency of other watchdog groups.

Managing Editor

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Rich Steeves

Richard P. Steeves is Managing Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he covers the intellectual property and compliance arenas. Rich earned a B.A. in English Literature...

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