Google asks US Supreme Court to review ruling on Wi-Fi packet sniffing

Google claims that its collection of data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks was legal

Google has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by an appeals court that its collection of data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks is not exempt under federal wiretap laws.

The company argues that its data collection does not violate the Wiretap Act as it fell under an exemption that makes it lawful to intercept electronic communications that are readily accessible to the general public.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in September that Wi-Fi network data collected by Google was not radio communications that is readily accessible to the public. The ruling was in an appeal by Google from a decision by a District Court in a consolidated class-action suit.

The Wiretap Act provides that radio communications that are readily accessible to the general public are exempt from the prohibition on interception if they are not "scrambled or encrypted."

The question posed by Google to the Supreme Court, docketed this week, is whether the 9th Circuit got it wrong in holding that "radio communications" under the Wiretap Act are restricted to "predominantly auditory broadcasts" and do not include Wi-Fi communications even though these communications are transmitted using radio waves.

Between 2007 and 2010, Google equipped its Street View cars with Wi-Fi antennas and software that collected data transmitted by Wi-Fi networks in nearby homes and businesses, which included both network identifying information and so-called payload data transmitted over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. The company acknowledged in May 2010 that it had inadvertently collected some personal data from unencrypted networks and apologized for it.

Google in its appeal to the Supreme Court does not, however, accept that the collection of the data was illegal, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission declined to take enforcement action after investigating Google, including for possible violations under the Wiretap Act.

The company said in its appeal that an adverse ruling could in fact hurt security professionals who routinely use the same kind of technology as Google's Street View cars did to collect packet data in order to secure company networks.

"And unlike Google, which never used the payload data it collected, security professionals also parse and analyze the data collected from wired and wireless networks, including networks operated by other persons or entities, to identify vulnerabilities in and potential attacks on the networks they protect," it added.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Internet-based applications and servicesGooglesecuritylegalinternetprivacyInternet service providers

More about Department of JusticeFederal Communications CommissionFederal Trade CommissionGoogleIDG

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by John Ribeiro

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place