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Google's 'Wi-Spy' accord gives consumers nothing, nine US states say

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) – Attorneys general from nine 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” doesn’t 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 organizations, 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 U.S. wiretap case ever and threatened the internet giant with billions of dollars in damages.

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

“Without receiving any of the US$13 million cash fund or any meaningful injunctive relief, class members receive no direct benefit from the settlement,” the attorneys general said. An attorney for the consumers and Google’s press office didn’t 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 Breyer to reject the deal at a Feb 28 final approval hearing 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 Mark 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 U.S. 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 in 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.

They also argued that the accord would deter privacy violations and that the funds designated for privacy-oriented groups will help teach future information technology workers to “to become safeguards of internet privacy rather than exploiters of personal information communicated over the internet.”

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