Google's sweeping collection of data such as passwords and email from unaware Internet users for its Street View photo mapping violated federal wiretap laws, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
In a decision that allows a privacy lawsuit to proceed against the Mountain View search giant, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Google's argument that such data collection is permitted under exceptions to the federal Wiretap Act, a law long on the books that was updated in the mid-1980s.
"Surely Congress did not intend to condone such an intrusive and unwarranted invasion of privacy when it enacted the Wiretap Act," 9th Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
The ruling marks the latest setback for Google over its neighborhood mapping project, which has been targeted by privacy advocates for the company's broad collection of personal information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. The decision upheld a federal judge's similar ruling two years ago, and moves forward a number of class action lawsuits.
The company already apologized for the data collection, and earlier this year settled a parallel case over the project brought by 38 states, including California, agreeing to pay a $7 million fine and take steps to avoid continued privacy violations. But Google has continued to fight the private lawsuits, maintaining the collection, while perhaps ill-advised, was permissible under the wiretap law.
A Google spokeswoman said the company is disappointed in the 9th Circuit ruling and is "considering our next steps." The company can ask the 9th Circuit to rehear the case with an 11-judge panel, or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Privacy advocates lauded the ruling.
"Landmark decision for Internet privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which intervened against Google in the case. "The 9th Circuit has made clear that the federal wiretap act protects private Wi-Fi networks."