How important is it to you that your emails are private? A lawsuit has been brought against Google alleging breach of privacy via Gmail. This post discusses the case, and whether or not you should have any reasonable expectation of privacy using Gmail and other similar free email services.
Question: do you think that webmail services, such as those offered by AOL, Microsoft (Hotmail), Google (Gmail) and Yahoo, should be held to higher privacy threshold? In other words, should you have a higher expectation of privacy for your email accounts than your social networks?
Google says no!
In an on-going class action lawsuit against Google in United States (US) Federal Court, it has been alleged that the company is in breach of wiretapping laws by illegally intercepting its customers’ email on Gmail. However, Google has countered with a ‘Motion to Dismiss’ the case, in which it has argued that its customers have consented (either expressly or implied) to such activities:
Here, all Plaintiffs who are Gmail users consented to the automated scanning of their emails (including for purposes of delivering targeted advertising) in exchange for using the Gmail service, thus precluding any claim under federal law. Moreover, multiple courts have held that all email senders impliedly consent to the processing of their emails by virtue of the fact that email cannot be sent or delivered without some form of electronic processing. This combination of express and implied consent bars Plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, under both the federal and state wiretap statutes.
(Source: Consumer Watchdog)
Later in its submission Google noted that in order to facilitate automatic delivery of messages, the company has a fully automated system that scans emails to detect and filter out corrupted messages, spam, etc. The company also highlighted that it is through its email scanning capability that users can search and automatically sort their incoming messages, which tend to be welcomed features(Source: Consumer Watchdog).
With regard to the targeted advertising based on email content that has become an important feature and source of revenue for the company, Google indicated it had disclosed its intention from its inception, and that other free email service providers are using similar systems to generate targeted advertising (Source: Consumer Watchdog).
Should you be concerned?
To varying degrees most of us are still coming to terms with the extent to which our expectations of privacy are being consistently eroded while we continue to embrace the opportunities the Internet, and technology in general, now provides. Although some of us might feel somewhat violated by this revelation from Google that they do not consider users’ emails private, the truth is that few of us might be prepared to significantly modify (or even reduce) our use of such services. However, here are two things to consider.
First, many small businesses, even if they have their own website and domain name, use Gmail and other free email services for their business communication, including for what they might consider confidential discussions/transactions. Further in organisations that provide employees with email accounts under their domain names, frequently, those employees, either intermittently or permanently resort to using free email services, again such as Gmail, to facilitate the work of the organisation. In both of those circumstances it may be prudent to re-examine the degree privacy necessary, and expected, for businesses emails, especially for commercially sensitive transactions or those containing confidential information.
Second, it is important to keep in mind the recent revelations about the extent to which the US Government has access to information stored on servers located in the US, or controlled by American companies. Further, although many prominent Internet companies, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook, have denied it, the allegations still persist that they provided the US Government with access to users’ content. The complete truth of this matter is still to be revealed, but it may be wise, if you have not already done so, to reconsider your practices and behaviour on free email facilities that might still be subject to close scrutiny by the US Government.
No email service might be truly private
Although the trigger for this post is Google’s Gmail and the on-going court case in the US, the fact of the matter is that no email service, unless you control the servers, might truly be private. Further, based rulings in previous US court proceedings, there may be a precedent that a person should have “…no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties…” (Source: Consumer Watchdog).
Although the case against Google is not yet concluded, should the outcome be in favour of the plaintiffs, there could be far reaching implications for how email service providers generate revenue versus the services they provide to their users. On the other hand, and more so if the case is decided in Google favour, we may all need recognise that although the Internet offers us a variety of cost-effective (even free) avenues through which to communicate and keep in touch, first, nothing is truly free, and perhaps more importantly, nothing is truly private.
Image credit: renjith krishnan (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)