Lawsuits Mount Over Google Wi-Fi Sniffing

Nearly three weeks after admitting that it had sniffed sensitive data from open wireless networks around the world, Google is now facing at least six U.S. class-action lawsuits over its practice.

The first lawsuit was filed on May 17 on behalf of Vicki Van Valin of Oregon and Neil Mertz of Washington. Since then, the lawsuits haven't stopped coming. Google is now facing two more cases in California courts, two in Washington, D.C., and another in Florida, brought by Internet service provider Galaxy Internet Services.

The lawsuits claim that Google violated federal wiretapping laws by sniffing wireless traffic -- including the content of e-mails and Web-surfing activity -- with its Google Street View cars. The specially equipped cars drive public streets, taking photographs and recording GPS coordinates to create Street View, a Google map product made up of photographs.

The suits have been brought by users of open wireless networks who believe that Google's Street View cars sniffed data from their networks.

Jeffrey Colman, a Washington, D.C., plaintiff, used an open Wi-Fi connection to do banking, shopping, and send e-mail, among other things. He knows that Street View sniffed his network because he actually saw the distinctive Street View vehicle driving down his street, court filings state.

For the past three years, Google has been collecting basic Wi-Fi networking data -- MAC (Media Access Control) addresses of routers, for example -- to help improve the accuracy of its location-based products, but the company had previously denied that it was also sniffing so-called "payload" data -- the contents of e-mails and Web pages for example.

In May, however, Google admitted that it had been doing the payload sniffing, but said that it was accidental. "We have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products," Google said in a May 14 blog post.

This snooping has fuelled a global controversy for Google with investigations now kicked off in Canada, France, and Germany. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also said to be investigating and there have been calls for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to look into the matter too.

On Thursday, Google confirmed that it would hand over sniffed data to European regulators within a few days. Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the Financial Times that his company would publish an external audit into the matter. "We screwed up. Let's be very clear about that," Schmidt was quoted as saying.

John Simpson, an advocate with California's Consumer Watchdog, says that he's not surprised to see so many class action lawsuits. "I think the reason that there are so many is because this is such an egregious intrusion into people's personal privacy," he said.

People don't expect to have their Internet communications recorded, he said. "They may be naïve, but the average person is not a technologist, and when he or she sends an e-mail or communicates data to another Web site, they don't expect that somebody's going to come along and snoop and suck up that data and log it in their server for future analysis."

Google declined to comment on the class-action lawsuits.

Robert McMillan can be reached at robert_mcmillan@idg.com. He is on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bobmcmillan.

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