Google has finally reached an agreement with the US government over the ‘Wi-Spy’ scandal - but while once dubbed the biggest private wiretap scandal in US history, the search engine monopole will pay a mere US$13 million.
The suit began in 2010, after it was revealed vehicles used by Google for its Street View mapping project were vacuuming emails, passwords and other sensitive personal data from unencrypted WiFi networks.
Google fought unsuccessfully all the way to US Supreme Court to block the lawsuit, arguing the federal Wiretap Act barring unauthorized interception of electronic communications didn’t apply to its Street View data gathering, and indeed it was legal to intercept data from open WiFi networks as they were comparable to AM/FM radio transmissions.
"Also, #Google will destroy all the data it still possesses and commit to teaching people how to protect their privacy on the internet."— Lobster Magazine (@LobsterMagazine) July 21, 2019
The USA's "biggest-ever wiretap case" that breached privacy of tens of millions worldwide is settled… for just $13m.https://t.co/qvtu6iS9Hs
The search engine also argued punishing its behaviour under the Wiretap Act would be unconstitutional, and any fine it received would be “grossly disproportionate to any actual harm caused by the activity in question”.
However, under the settlement agreed 19th July, which still requires judicial approval, the owners of the WiFi networks whose information was captured by Google won’t receive payouts, bar the 20 plaintiffs who filed a class action complaint. Once court costs are dealt with, any remaining funds will be distributed to the consumer privacy advocacy groups which brought legal action. All data Google still possesses will also be deleted.
Google justify the paltry payout - which amounts to one sixth the net income its parent company Alphabet Inc. makes in a single day on average - on the basis it would be difficult to identify affected people precisely after so long, and for affected individuals to prove the practice damaged them in some way.
The argument has been accepted by plaintiffs’ lawyers, who fear their clients could lose the case if they pushed further - they also argue the settlement will act as a deterrent against future infractions.