The first challenge to Google's now-ended practice of scooping up bits of private wireless data with its Street View vehicles will not come from the Silicon Valley giant's backyard.
Instead, three Oregon lawyers have filed what is believed to be the first class action against Google's so-called data sniffing. The complaint, filed this week in the U.S. District Court in Oregon, alleges that the company violated Washington and Oregon privacy laws as well as the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The plaintiffs are seeking up to $10,000 per violation suffered by each class member plus other damages.
Google executives admitted last week that the company's Street View cars "mistakenly" picked up bits of private data from WiFi networks while cruising neighborhoods around the world for information used in products like Google Maps.
Google Senior Vice President Alan Eustace wrote that an engineer accidentally inserted the wrong data-sniffing code into the Street View cars' information-collection software. Google indefinitely parked its mobile program, apologized and said the questionable data was safely segregated and protected.
But privacy ministers from countries around the world have asked for more information about what was collected. And on Wednesday, two U.S. congressmen called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.
Privacy lawyers said the Oregon class action filed Monday appears to be the first related to the case.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there's more than one filed," said Marcia Hofmann, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
The Oregon complaint does not detail why the plaintiffs -- one in Oregon and one in Washington -- believe their wireless data were obtained by Google. The filing only says that the two live on streets where the company has collected data.
Brooks Cooper, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case, said his clients won't know what Google has until discovery. The company's actions "could be unintentional," Cooper said, but he said the fact that the data-collecting code made it into the Street View software raises questions.
"Given what the company has said publicly, the only purpose of that software is to do what they did," he said.
A company spokesperson said in an e-mail late Wednesday that "Based on our review of the complaint, it has no merit."
Privacy experts warned that federal law may not offer the damages that the plaintiffs are seeking. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act offers a safe harbor for some breaches if the collected information is publicly accessible, said Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner I. Neel Chatterjee. Companies have typically been protected too if they can prove they collected the data unintentionally.
And then there's the question of whether the plaintiffs will have standing in the case if they did not suffer any actual harm.
"That might be the end of the line right there," said Eric Goldman, director of Santa Clara University's High Tech Law Institute.
Google is not a company plagued by "bad privacy cases," Hofmann said, adding that that's what makes the current data-collecting scandal so frustrating.
"Google is a sophisticated company," she said. "This is a rookie mistake."