Google “finally admitted they don’t respect privacy”

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Last month, Google took action to dismiss a lawsuit which accused the company of breaking wiretap laws when it scans emails sent from other email providers to Gmail users (for the purposes of serving ads). Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog recently uncovered the filing and says they found a “stunning admission” from the internet giant.

Apparently, in their motion to dismiss the case, Google said that anyone that sends an email to any of Gmail’s 425 million users have no “reasonable expectation” that their communications are confidential. The company also added that the plaintiffs were attempting to “criminalise ordinary business practices” that have been part of Gmail since the very beginning, and that “all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.”

Google’s explanation also came with their very own analogy for the situation:

“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 email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS [electronic communications service] provider in the course of delivery.”

John Simpson, who is Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director and a long-time Google critic, fired back with an analogy of his own:

“Google’s brief uses a wrong-headed analogy; sending an email is like giving a letter to the Post Office. I expect the Post Office to deliver the letter based on the address written on the envelope. I don’t expect the mail carrier to open my letter and read it.

Similarly, when I send an email, I expect it to be delivered to the intended recipient with a Gmail account based on the email address; why would I expect its content will be intercepted by Google and read?”

Simpson adds that “Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy. People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy, don’t use Gmail.”

A Google spokesperson responded by saying: “We take our users’ privacy and security very seriously; recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue. We have built industry-leading security and privacy features into Gmail — and no matter who sends an email to a Gmail user, those protections apply.”

While I have to agree with Google’s assertion that Gmail has typically always had industry-leading security, I’m not so convinced about Gmail’s privacy aspect. But, hey, I’m still using it so…

[via The Guardian, image via brionv]

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13 comments

  1. JMJ

    [@Darcy] I totally agree, Darcy, and you are correct about ‘open’ bulk mail and postcards, too, for that matter. I shared that because I thought it funny.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I have a special love for Postal Workers. As an undergrad, I worked the graveyard shift at the USPS for two years. I had no car and worked miles and miles away from the public transportation I used to get to school in the A.M. Those guys not only took turns making sure I got to school on time but even cooperated so that I could combine my lunch and coffee-breaks to take naps or to study. I left the P.O. before getting my degrees but went back to show them what they helped me accomplish.

  2. Darcy

    Frankly this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve hated Google’s tracking and recording policies from the beginning. We need legal protection equal to the protection provided to snail mail.

    [@JMJ] As for the Postman reading your Car and Driver magazine, there is a difference between that and opening your personal mail to read it. Granted he shouldn’t have read the magazine, and would get in trouble if his bosses knew he had done it, but an open third class bulk rate circular isn’t entitled to the same protections as personal mail. Instead of going to jail for about 20 years, he would probably face anything from a written reprimand on his permanent file to loss of his job for what he did.

  3. JMJ

    [@Coyote] I don’t agree that “scraping” the CONTENTS of emails, as done by Google (and others) is innocuous. I give them my email for one purpose and one purpose only: To deliver it intact and unopened to MY intended recipient.

    — You do me the favor of driving me to the airport in my car. You are to drive it back to my garage and park it. On the way back, you decide to make a pit stop, pick up your Child from school and do McDonalds. Under U.S. Law, you have committed the crime — CRIME— of ‘conversion’. You were doing me a favor up to the point where you deviated from my instruction; thereafter, you were breaking the law. Google is doing me a “favor” up to the point where they use my email for a purpose I did not intend or authorize.

    And it is not NOT a big deal. The information they gather has value and can be used against me. For example, they scrape my emails which reveal my corresponding about medications to treat obsessive-compulsive behavior. They agglomerate such data and, for a price, make it available to potential employers, insurance companies, dating websites. They have the (geometrically increasing) capacity to process such huge amounts of data and use it. Power rarely goes unexercised. This is at the crux of the Snowden/PRISM issue.

    Spell-checking is a much different animal.

    Your Post Office analogy fails because keeping track of the volume of mail from one location to the other is hugely different from accessing the contents of that mail, analyzing it and using that data for other purposes. Side Note: The Post Office has been used in the past (?) by the U.S. Government to try to identify “communists” and to track “sex/morality criminals”; you know those folks who ordered magazines that came in plain, brown wrappers. McCarthy is dead and gone and the U.S. is not so sexually hung up as earlier but the potential for “abusing” the” P.O. remains. Google is exploiting the same kind of potential.

    Personally, I am not hung up on my “privacy”. I do what I do and, if I don’t want anyone knowing about it, I do it very, very discretely.

  4. Coyote

    While it may seem like google is reading your mail, that would be a misnomer. Google is reading it, but as an automated scraper that only finds key words or phrases for the use in advertising/features. No person is reading all the emails, in fact that would be a privacy violation and probably illegal. The data being scraped is the same as if I wanted autocorrect or tracking numbers to automatically recognize the delivery company. It’s all being done by machines. No one at google cares if your Aunt Myrtle sat on her cat.

    As for the post office example, they too collect data about addresses and mail flow. It’s not a privacy issue either, its the way they maintain work flow and how to allot hours/manpower to specific post offices.

    In a perfect world all information would be open and accessible but never misused, Imagine the ease of banking or making an international trip if there were all the security hoops to jump through. And yet even with all the security in the world there will still be people that find a way to abuse it.

  5. JMJ

    [@J.L.] You are 100% right and a welcomed relief from the usual l33t whiners: A realist in a capitalistic world. You nailed it with: If you don’t own it, then you can’t control it. However, governments and powers like Google must be kept on leashes.

    I fiercely protect my person and those of my loved ones and our homes but I don’t expect security, “privacy” or anonymity almost anywhere else these days, especially not on the Internet. Those disappeared when I first went to school, got a my Soc. Sec. Card, loan, car, phone, etc., etc.

  6. J.L.

    [@JMJ] First, you try not doing it with the government and business model they’re under. “Don’t be evil” was just another marketing gimmick, we all know how those bend the truth.

    Second, do you expect them to be the only mega-corporation to respect privacy while using their free services? Don’t give me the Ixquick excuse when it’s dependant on Google and other similar companies.

    Are any of you surprised? What respect do you want from something you don’t own?

  7. JMJ

    [@J.L.] Do I understand you to mean that Google should be commended or, at least, not bashed for coming clean? If so, I strongly disagree:
    First, they should not have been doing it in the first place. “Don’t be evil”, they said, right?

    Second, they did not see the error of their ways and “confess”; rather, they stupidly were caught red-handed and defended themselves with the equivalent of , “But, everyone is doing it.”

    Third, according to their quotes, they actually say that we “shouldn’t be surprised” that they are disrespecting us because, after all, they are providing a service while doing it.

    If I misunderstood you, then —a la SNL’s Gilda Radner, *Nevermind*. ;-)

  8. JMJ

    Wow! Talk about arrogant. It reminds me of a person who was on trial for stealing a phone from a local merchant whose store she frequented. When asked why she did it, especially to one who trusted her, she replied that: ‘It was his fault because he momentarily left her in the store to see what was causing a commotion outside.’ For a moment, all I could do was stare.

    @RealBull – They actually did “tell” us when they tried to con us into accepting their ads were being “customized just for our convenience”. It’s just like the NSA: They don’t actually “read for comprehension” they only do it to protect us.

    @Reginald – I would agree with you regarding snail-mail if I hadn’t caught my years-long mail carrier taking a break on a bench on MY street, reading THIS month’s issue of CAR AND DRIVER… MY subscription! To his credit, he didn’t try to hide it; rather, he actually told me how awesome he thought the cover’s Porsche 918 Spyder is, showed me the pic and asked if I agreed. :-o

  9. RealBull

    I’m tired of Google and other companies making weak excuses, but I think everyone knows that Google is a business that is run on commercial ads. So everyone should actually expect it, but they(Google) should had just came out and admit they’re reading everyone’s email a longtime ago instead of making up lies. If they are lying about that, what else are they lying about or not telling?

  10. Harris

    I gave up on anything from Google about 3 years ago – the arrogant attitude that they have the right to anything one does on the web is is incomprehensible. I would not be surprised if they wrote all the code for NSA….