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Google loses appeal in Street View snooping case

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2010 file photo, an employee drives a Google Maps Street View vehicle around Palo Alto, Calif. Internet giant Google's Street View project  has raised privacy concerns in several countries. Attorneys suing Google for enabling its camera-carrying vehicles to collect emails and Internet passwords while photographing neighborhoods for the search giant's popular "Street View" maps look forward to resuming their case now that a U.S. appeals court has ruled in their favor. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Tuesday that Google went far beyond listening to accessible radio communication when they drew information from inside people's homes. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2010 file photo, an employee drives a Google Maps Street View vehicle around Palo Alto, Calif. Internet giant Google's Street View project has raised privacy concerns in several countries. Attorneys suing Google for enabling its camera-carrying vehicles to collect emails and Internet passwords while photographing neighborhoods for the search giant's popular "Street View" maps look forward to resuming their case now that a U.S. appeals court has ruled in their favor. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Tuesday that Google went far beyond listening to accessible radio communication when they drew information from inside people's homes. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

A federal appeals court said Google wrongly collected people’s personal correspondence and online activities through their Wi-Fi systems as it drove down their streets with car cameras shooting photos for its Street View mapping project.

The ruling that the practice violates wiretap laws sends a warning to other companies seeking to suck up vast amounts of data from unencrypted Wi-Fi signals.

“The payload data transmitted over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks that was captured by Google included emails, usernames, passwords, images, and documents,” wrote the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a report yesterday.

Google had argued that their activities were exempt from the wiretap law because data transmitted over a Wi-Fi network is a “radio communication” and is “readily accessible to the public.”

Not so, wrote the judges, agreeing with an earlier federal judge’s ruling.

“Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi network, members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network,” they said.

Google’s Street View cars can be spotted with pole-mounted cameras on their roofs, photographing along roadways the world over.

But unbeknownst to passers-by, those cameras weren’t just making photos. They were also collecting detailed information transmitted over Wi-Fi networks they passed through.

Privacy experts and industry watchers said this was the first time an appeals court has ruled that it’s illegal for a company to sniff out and collect private information from the Wi-Fi networks of people at home. Google is also the first publically known company to try.

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