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Supreme Court denies appeal in Google Street View case

Google's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding its violation of the Wiretap Act has been denied. Google was found at fault in 2010, and reached a settlement in 2013 which included a total of $7 million paid out to 38 states, but the company has continued to appeal the decision.

The Supreme Court was Google's last option for having the decision reversed, but the court denied Google's appeal.

The case in question involves Google's Street View cars. Google uses cars equipped with cameras to map out roadways and provide Google Maps users with pictures of the street and surrounding area, which can give them a preview of what their destination will look like in real life. However, those vehicles were also gathering data from open Wi-Fi networks as they passed by. MAC addresses and Network SSIDs were routinely gathered and stored to collect information about local businesses and networks for mobile users. MAC addresses are the unique device ID for Wi-Fi hotspots and network SSIDs are the user-assigned network ID name.

However, the program also stored any information being transmitted over an unsecured wireless network. Google claims that this part of the program was unintentional, and that it was unaware the data was being gathered.

"It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) Wi-Fi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products," says Google in a statement.

Federal courts determined that this gathering of data was a violation of the Wiretap Act, which prevents surruptitious observation and recording of private communications. Google argues that since the connection was unsecured, the information being transmitted was considered accessible to the public, and was therefor exempt from the Wiretap Act through a clause intended to address radio broadcasts.

However, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) disagrees.

"These communications are not 'broadcast' like traditional radio communications," says EPIC in a statement. "They are sent from one device to another directly and there is nothing about the typical configuration of a Wi-Fi device to suggest that users expect that their communications between these devices would be 'readily accessible to the general public.' " 

The court found that information sent over unsecured Wi-Fi networks was not considered publicly available. It is geographically limited due to the short range of wireless networks, and is only accessible with some difficulty. Most of the general public lacks the expertise necessary to obtain information transmitted this way. That ruling was upheld through multiple appeals, and with the Supreme Court's rejection, Google's fault in this matter appears to be final.

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