The cat is among the pigeons over how private Gmail really is

15 Aug 2013

Google is being sued for allegedly crossing the “creepy line” in terms of reading and storing information from messages sent and received via its email service Gmail. However, in defending against this and explaining how its service really works, Google opened a virtual Pandora’s Box after stating “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

Consumer Watchdog has unearthed a brief filed by attorneys for Google saying Gmail users have no reasonable expectation that their communications will be kept secret. The motion, filed on 13 July 2013, appears to have been filed to offset damages arising from a class-action complaint against the company in North California.

In the suit, the plaintiffs claim that an illegal interception is committed every time an email is sent to or from a Gmail account – that it is scanned by Google. The plaintiffs claim this violates Federal and State wiretapping laws.

Future Human

Google contends this because in order to provide the services that Gmail users expect it needs to scan email messages. For example, it is for this reason it can apply filters to block spam and viruses.

In the brief, Google said: “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 emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery.”

It is the next part of the brief that has opened up a Pandora’s Box:

“Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’”

A stunning admission, or is Google struggling to explain a complex system?

Consumer Watchdog described this as a “stunning admission.”

“Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy,” said John M Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy don’t use Gmail.”

However, Google for its part, points out in the brief that: “Like all email providers, Google applies automated systems for the delivery of email. As part of this processing, Google’s automated systems scan email content to filter out spam, detect computer viruses, and provide various features, including functions that allow users to search their email messages, automatically sort incoming email, and others.

“These systems are also used to display advertisements targeted to email content, as Google has disclosed since the inception of Gmail nearly a decade ago,” Google said in its filing.

Google has pointed out that there has been no illegal interception or accessing of users’ email because is it all part of the normal course of business.

By not doing so, it would be unable to provide normal services that Gmail users have come to expect.

However, in explaining what is a truly complex task, Google appears to inadvertently set the cat among the pigeons.

Cat and pigeon image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years