Google Admits Scanning Users’ Email

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“Forget Big Brother – Google is better!”

Those were the words of German media executive Mathias Döpfner in his April 17 open letter to Google chairman Eric Schmidt, in which he stated his fear that Google envisions a world with no antitrust and privacy protections.

Coincidentally, Döpfner’s letter came a few days after Google issued a clarification of its new terms of service for Gmail users, essentially admitting that it scans users’ emails not after they are stored but also as they are being sent and received.

Privacy advocates say the new terms of service reinforce their concerns that Google is actively collecting enormous amounts of data from hundreds of millions of consumers around the world to create a detailed profile of individual users. It may not seem so harmful when the information is used for tailored advertising; what is troubling is that ownership of such a mammoth database gives Google a lot of power over individuals, they say.

John M. Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, said the new terms of service on email scanning will affect even those who don’t have Gmail accounts.

“If I send an email to your Gmail account from my corporate email account, that is going to be scanned, too,” he said. “I think that’s a huge problem because there is no way I would expect that my email would be snooped on.”

Google is facing lawsuits in California from several Gmail users who allege that the company broke state and federal laws in scanning their emails.

Google argues that users have implicitly agreed to the practice, and contends that the scanning, which is done by automated software, is an “ordinary course of business” rather than an act of snooping or wiretapping.

A federal judge gave privacy advocates reason to celebrate last year when she ruled that that Google may have breached wiretapping laws.

The judge, however, later declined to give class action status to the plaintiffs, which makes it easier for Google to defend the claims and reduces the potential damages it could face. Plaintiffs have asked a federal appeals court to overrule that decision.

Kirk Wolden, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, and Michael Rhodes, an attorney for Google, declined to comment.

The case is scheduled to go to trial later this year, and privacy advocates say its outcome will have significant implications on consumers’ privacy rights.

If the plaintiffs prevail, Google could be deterred from engaging in email scanning in the future, or may even be subject to a judgment explicitly prohibiting it from engaging in the practice, said Julia Horwitz, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Simpson, meanwhile, said that if Google wins, “it’s going to mean that invading people’s privacy is going to be ordinary business practice.”

“And I think there is something fundamentally wrong with a business practice that is based on invading people’s privacy,” he said.

Simpson added that the problem of email scanning goes beyond email privacy. Scanning emails is only part of what Google does to collect information from users. It also collects data from Internet searches, map searches, YouTube views, and several other Google services, he said.

The data across all of those services are now combined, he said, and that means Google is not only reading your email, but also knows what you searched for, what videos you watched, what items you shopped for, what documents you saved in Google Drive, what pictures you stored in Picasa, and what places you looked up on Google Maps – among other things.

“They are using that data to create a sort of digital dossier on everybody, and that makes a very revealing profile of the person,” Simpson said.

Horwitz agreed.

“It provides [Google] with a lot of data about the users – and control over them,” she said.

Döpfner was more dramatic when he made a similar point in his open letter to Schmidt.

“Google knows more about every digitally active citizen than George Orwell dared to imagine in his wildest dreams in 1984,” he wrote. “Google is sitting on the entire current data trove of humanity like the giant Fafner in The Ring of the Nibelung: ‘Here I lie and here I hold’.”

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