Lawyers suing Google claimed on Thursday that they have discovered evidence in a patent application that Google deliberately programmed its Street View cars to collect private data from open Wi-Fi networks, despite claims to the contrary.
"At this point, it is our belief that it is not an accident," said Brooks Cooper, an Oregon attorney suing Google in one of several class actions lawsuits around the country arising from Google's disclosure that its Street View cars intercepted Wi-Fi traffic around the world. Google has described the sniffing as a coding error.
The evidence, the relevance of which Google disputed Thursday, is a 2008 Google patent application (.pdf) describing a method to increase the accuracy of location-based services - services that would allow advertisers or others to know almost the exact location of a mobile phone or other computing device. The patent application involves intercepting data and analysing the timing of transmission as part of the method for pinpointing user locations.
The so-called "776″ patent application, published by US Patent and Trademark Office in January, describes "one or more of the methods" by which Google collects information for its Street View program, Cooper's legal team said in court documents filed late Wednesday in federal court in Oregon.
Google spokeswoman Christine Chen said in an email that the patent in question "is entirely unrelated to the software code used to collect Wi-Fi information with Street View cars". In a follow up email, Chen added that Google files "patent applications on a variety of ideas that our engineers come up with. Some of them mature into real products or services, and some of them don't."
Chen did not immediately respond to an email asking whether Google has performed the "776″ method in practice.
Whether Google wilfully sniffed out internet traffic on unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots in dozens of countries is an enormous public relations headache. It also carries huge legal and monetary ramifications in the United States, where the Mountain View, California, internet giant is being sued for privacy violations in multiple federal courthouses.
Among other reasons, Google might escape liability if it accidentally collected and never divulged the data, which includes web pages users visited or pieces of email, video, audio and document files.
Google must turn over the US data it siphoned to a federal judge in Oregon by Friday. The data will remain under lock and key.
Street View is part of Google Maps and Google Earth, and provides panoramic pictures of streets and their surroundings across the globe.
The internet giant has maintained the collection of data was inadvertent - the result of a programming error with code written for an early experimental project that wound up on the Street View code. Google said it didn't realise it was sniffing packets of data on unsecured Wi-Fi networks in dozens of countries for the last three years, until German privacy authorities began questioning what data Google's Street View cameras were collecting.
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