9 US states object to Google’s ‘Wi-Spy’ settlement

SAN FRANCISCO • Attorneys-general from nine US states urged a federal judge to toss out Google’s US$13 million (S$17.6 million) settlement of a class-action lawsuit blaming its Street View mapping technology for a massive violation of consumer privacy.

The proposed accord in a debacle that became known as “Wi-Spy” does not offer compensation for millions of people whose confidential data was captured off their Wi-Fi networks by Street View vehicles.

Instead, the deal divvies up funds among a handful of privacy rights organisations, a small number of individual consumers who led the case and their lawyers, the state officials said in a court filing.

The lawsuit, filed a decade ago, was once called the biggest wiretap case in the United States and it threatened the Internet giant with billions of dollars in damages.

The settlement was reached last July and won preliminary approval in October from US District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, who found it to be “likely fair, reasonable and adequate”.

The attorneys-general said: “Without receiving any of the US$13 million cash fund or any meaningful injunctive relief, class members receive no direct benefit from the settlement.”

An attorney for the consumers and Google’s press office did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Arizona State Attorney-General Mark Brnovich submitted the filing, joined by Alabama, Alaska, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana and Louisiana. The states plan to urge Judge Breyer to reject the deal at a final approval hearing on Feb 28 in San Francisco.

Google agreed in the settlement to delete all collected data and educate people on how to set up encrypted wireless networks. But the company had already made those promises in a 2013 agreement with 39 attorneys-general, according to Mr Brnovich’s filing.

Any “injunctive relief is illusory”, the attorneys-general said.

The Street View suit is a rare instance in privacy litigation where consumers gained the upper hand, notably when the US Court of Appeals in San Francisco in 2013 rejected Google’s argument that it was legal to intercept open Wi-Fi networks because they were akin to AM/FM radio transmissions.

The court’s conclusion that the federal Wiretap Act applied meant that if Google went to trial to fight the allegations and lost, it could be hit with US$10,000 in damages for every violation.

But last July, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said the settlement was justified, in part, because there was a risk that they could still lose the case – and end up with nothing.

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