Recent court filings as part of a class-action case against Google have left some Gmail users wondering if, perhaps, there's a better Web-based e-mail service waiting out there. The filings included some very disturbing language in terms of just how much privacy Gmail users should expect to have, and how surprisingly close to zero that amount actually is.
Google's motion to dismiss said class-action lawsuit brought the disturbing remarks to light, and stated, “just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient's assistant opens the letter, people who use Web-based mail today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient's ECS (electronic communications service) provider in the course of delivery.” Given that the suit in question is related to Google violating both state and federal laws in the use of a program that scans mail to serve up related advertising, the remarks are both relevant and chilling.
Google's motion then made note of precedent in the 1979 Smith v. Maryland case, which found that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” This, however, was related to a telephone company who, at the request of law enforcement, used a pen register to record numbers dialed from the telephone at a certain home.
Meanwhile, the Consumer Watchdog group has taken all this to mean that “Google has finally admitted that they don't respect privacy,” and suggests that users “should take them at their word; if you care about your e-mail correspondents' privacy don't use Gmail,” from a statement from the groups director of the privacy project, John M. Simpson.
Google itself, meanwhile, takes issue to this concept, noting that all the scanning in question is done by an algorithm, and no human being is actually reading e-mails. Naturally, recent reflections on the PRISM case and other similar efforts around the world have colored these efforts somewhat and likely left users concerned.
Google makes some sound points in this; after all, an e-mail service offered free to the public with advertising support is going to need some kind of relevance scale in order to get potential ad buyers to purchase advertising with the service. Leaving such tasks to the machines isn't exactly terrible. But Google's language in this case—which is more cleaver than scalpel—is basically looking to try and give Google a free pass to do whatever it pleases with those e-mails, and that's not a development that people looking for a simple and inexpensive way to stay in contact with friends, family and business associates want to see.
Indeed, maybe Google's actions do have the force of law to back them up. Only the conclusion of the class-action suit will tell for sure. But there's what's legal, and what users will abide. Since the success of Gmail is largely dependent on those users—if no one's using Gmail, advertisers sure aren't going to buy space there—perhaps it might be better for Google in the long run to drop the algorithms and leave people's e-mail alone. There's often a difference between “can” and “should,” and this looks to be one of those times where it would apply.
Edited by Rich Steeves