Accessing Open Wi-Fi Networks is Wiretapping per California Federal Judge

Posted by at 10:44 pm on June 30, 2011

Last year, Google got into legal hot water over gathering data from open Wi-Fi networks as its Street View vehicles passed through communities to gather image data. The resulting class-action lawsuits have been consolidated into a single case and the California federal judge in charge has just refused Google’s motion to dismiss the case, according to a Friday Ars Technica report. Furthermore, the judge ruled scrubbing information from open Wi-Fi networks constitutes wiretapping.

The case is still at the preliminary stage, but the ruling may set a precedent as to what constitutes transgressing the Wiretap Act. Judge James Ware did make an important distinction between accessing an open network for personal use and seeking to access other people’s information from it. The latter often requires specialized or above average skills and software, he said.

The key question turns on whether open Wi-Fi packets are “readily accessible to the general public,” since US law does provide an exception for monitoring such signals. Because Google’s Street View vehicles allegedly collected WiFi network names (SSIDs), unique hardware addresses (MAC addresses), usernames, passwords, and even “whole e-mails,” Judge Ware concluded that the plaintiffs had stated a proper Wiretap Act claim.

The judge dismissed the state-level claims against Google but left the major federal wiretapping portion in place.

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