Nashville, TN (The Tennessean)- A group of Nashville residents and attorneys are part of a class-action lawsuit against Internet giant Google that could go down as the largest invasion-of-privacy case in history.
The company is accused of breaking federal and state wiretap laws from 2007 to 2010. That’s when vehicles that were deployed nationwide to collect images for Google Maps’ street view feature also were outfitted with software that lifted scraps of personal information off residents’ and businesses’ open wireless networks.
If you can see a picture of your home or business on Google Maps’ street view and had a wireless Internet network that didn’t require a password to access between 2007 and 2010, Google may have downloaded information such as user names and passwords if you were on the Internet when the street view car drove by.
Google says it tapped into wireless networks in an effort — unrelated to the street view feature — to improve its location-based services, such as those that allow smartphone users to map their location.
Google has admitted it made a major mistake and claims it never intended to collect or use personal information, but insists it didn’t break the law by downloading information from wireless networks that were open to the public.
Nashville marketing and design coordinator Wes Hartline was outraged when he first heard about the so-called Wi-Spy controversy last year. He was working for health-care companies at the time and routinely dealt with confidential records while using his wireless network. He says he’s worried that he could be held personally liable if private information was collected and ever got loose.
“There’s nothing wrong with an expectation of privacy, and Google violated it,” Hartline, 28, said of the lawsuit. “I feel like if someone broke into your home and took these sorts of things, you’d be really upset. I don’t think this is any different.”
Hartline is one of several people across the country who have sued Google in federal court. The other Nashville plaintiffs are Lilla Marigza, a former television news reporter and stay-at-home mother, and David Binkley, a real estate agent.
They were referred to lawyers at Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein by Nashville attorney Brian Manookian, who works at Gideon Cooper & Essary and knew his firm wasn’t built to go toe to toe with the likes of Google. San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser, however, is one of the most prominent plaintiffs firms in the nation, having achieved verdicts and settlements valued at more than $100 million in 45 cases, including 15 cases that won awards of $1 billion.
One of the firm’s three offices happens to be in Nashville. The Nashville case was ultimately consolidated with others across the country in a California federal court, and the firm was appointed to a leadership position to coordinate with the court and represent all the plaintiffs in the case. Nashville-based attorneys including Kathryn Barnett and Kenneth Byrd are working on the case.
Google also is under investigation by government agencies in the United States and abroad. On Wednesday, the Tennessee attorney general’s office confirmed that it is investigating Google’s actions as part of a multistate effort.
U.S. District Judge James Ware breathed life into the class-action case late last month, when he rejected Google’s bid to have it dismissed. Ware’s decision turned on whether, as Google argued, unrestricted wireless Internet networks should be classified as the type of “radio communication” that is not protected by the federal Wiretap Act. Ware rejected Google’s argument as “absurd.”
Manookian, who has continued to participate to a degree in the lawsuit, praised Ware’s ruling.
“If Google was able to impede on that privacy right … just because you were using an open network, there would be no more hot spots at Starbucks or free wireless at McDonald’s,” he said.
Google, however, wants a second opinion. Last week it filed a motion asking for permission to appeal Ware’s decision to a federal appeals court and to have the lawsuit stopped in the meantime.
“We believe the claims are without merit and that the Court should have dismissed the Wiretap claim just as it dismissed the plaintiffs’ other claims,” a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Ware dismissed the plaintiffs’ state law claims because they are pre-empted by the alleged violations of the federal Wiretap Act.
Barnett said she opposes Google’s effort to pause the case and hopes to continue investigating what Google took specifically and what, if anything, they have done with it.
“We’re asking the court not to stop the proceedings,” Barnett said, “so we can find out what happened.”
Law not keeping up The fact that there is even a question whether what Google did is illegal speaks to a deficiency in the nation’s laws, Hartline said.
“Our legislative bodies are not keeping up with the unexpected rapid advances of technologies, mobile or otherwise,” Hartline said.
“Whether wireless Internet, mobile phones, geo-tagging or other functionalities, we are far behind in effectively managing these from a legal privacy perspective.”
Reporter: Brandon Gee