July 01, 2011, 1:05 PM — Google could be facing fines or prosecution following a federal court's decision that passively listening in on unencrypted WiFi connections as you drive by in a car could count as illegal wiretapping.
In pointing the finger at Google, however, federal courts have evidently decided to punish Google for the equivalent of overhearing a conversation on a street corner, while giving carte blanche to law enforcement agencies to break in to the talkers' apartment, search the place, bug the phones and record every sound from the bedroom and bathroom without a warrant or any reason to believe residents are up to no good.
Yesterday, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ruled that Google Street View vans violated rules on wiretapping by putting WiFi receivers in its StreetView vans to detect, sample data from and map unsecured wireless LANs along their routes.
Google is already in trouble for the practice in Europe. France fined it 100,000 Euros and officials in England are still investigating it.
U.S District Court Judge James Ware apparently believes, as does most of Europe, that listening in on someone else's wireless LAN is verboten. His explanation is a little convoluted, however.
"Merely pleading that a network is unencrypted does not render that network readily accessible to the general public," his decision read.
Being unencrypted – or at least security limiting access only to those with the right password or MAC address does – does, in fact, mean the network is readily accessible to the general public.
The fact that Google used special equipment to do its eavesdropping means it wasn't just passively overhearing WLAN broadcasts, it was seeking them and sampling data from them on purpose. That makes it liable for civil suits and federal prosecution under federal wiretap laws, the judge ruled.
Contrast that with the melee over the FBI's right to stick a GPS device on someone's car to track his or her movements for more than a month, as they did to at least two people who discovered the surveillance in 2005. Both are now suing for invasion of privacy. One is an animal-rights activist ; the other is Arab American.