A judge ruled that Google Inc. overstepped its bounds by enabling its vehicles to collect emails, Internet passwords and Web surfing behavior while photographing neighborhoods for the search giant's popular "Street View" mapping feature.
Google has apologized for the snooping, promised to stop collecting the data and said what it did was inadvertent but not illegal.
But a federal judge late Wednesday rejected Google's claim that data transmitted wirelessly without password protections are essentially publicly accessible radio broadcasts. It's the first such court ruling of its kind.
U.S. District Court Judge James Ware said that wireless networks accessed by millions in their homes, coffee shops and wherever Wi-Fi is offered are not exempt from the Wiretap Act, which makes it illegal to eavesdrop on electronic communications that are not "readily accessible to the general public" such as cell phone conversations.
Ware said that Google employed sophisticated computer tools, including use of a so-called "wireless sniffer," to capture, store and decipher "data packets" transmitted wirelessly.
Google said in a statement that it was reviewing the decision to determine whether to appeal. The company said it still believes the allegations that it violated the Wiretap Act are "without merit."
Jim Dempsey, an Internet privacy expert at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the wiretap law needs updated to address this issue. Dempsey said the law was last amended in 1986 to address "CB radios and baby monitors" and doesn't discuss wireless networks.
"I don't think anyone doubts that it should be illegal to intercept someone's communications," Dempsey said. "It should clearly be a crime to intercept those things. But I think it's equally clear that the law doesn't clearly cover that issue right now and that the law is really a mess."
German regulators uncovered the data collection in 2010 when they asked Google about the type of data its specialized street view vehicles were collecting. Each vehicle was equipped with nine cameras to photograph 360-degree images of streets and powerful antennas with custom software to capture wireless signals. Google said it used the captured data to improve its location-based services such as its Street View feature unveiled in 2007.
The company blamed overzealous engineers for creating software to collect sensitive data it had no intention of using and has promised to destroy the information as soon as it's legally permissible. Aside from the lawsuits consolidated in Ware's courtroom, the company is the target of government investigations in the United States and abroad.
The Federal Trade Commission, for instance, criticized Google in 2010 for collecting potentially sensitive information over unsecured wireless networks for several years before realizing it. But the FTC said it was satisfied that Google improved its internal privacy controls, including privacy training for all 23,000 of the company's employees.
A Federal Communications Commission probe is still ongoing.