A consolidated action lawsuit is in the works against Google for email scanning in Gmail, an act that may be akin to illegal wiretapping. The case is set for trial in November but even so, Google has been fighting to keep the details of its internal processes regarding Gmail confidential.
Google has never denied that it scans emails, according to Bloomsberg Businessweek, but the company stands by the fact that their activities are allowed by Gmail users when they agree to the terms of service and privacy policies when they open their accounts.
The Problematic ‘Content One’ Box
It will be interesting to see how the courts apply the laws surround the 20th Century crime of wiretapping over to this modern day version using 21st Century technologies. It turns out that if you host stored data, you have more rights to access it than you do “live” data. When it comes to email, this would mean unopened or in-process email communications. Google discovered that it could not extract email data from Gmail messages opened on mobile devices through third party readers such as Microsoft Outlook or unopened or deleted emails. So it configured its own reader (called the content one box) to receive Gmail messages before they were delivered to recipients. The content one box is allegedly where Google collects user data, which the company can use (according to their terms) for fighting spam and delivering targeted advertising.
Google is mum on whether or not the content one box actually exists, and if so, what other data mining activities are occurring using live emails on the Gmail servers.
If We Can’t Have Privacy, Can We At Least Have Transparency?
With 425 million monthly active users as of June 2012, a suit against Gmail by Gmail users will be a massive case to build and defend. So Google may be able to buy lots of time with the logistics of defining the plaintiffs, collecting evidence and fighting for the confidentiality of trade secrets to be kept out of the litigation process. But even Google can’t deny the conflicting information that is given to Gmail users regarding privacy and the use of their private data. Google’s attorney’s stated the following in a motion filed last year to dismiss this case:
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 [email] provider in the course of delivery.
This is an example of where an entity feels that they can subject you to a process or action just because you did not specifically say that they could not do it to you. If Google wishes to scan and intercept the emails of Gmail users, they should be clear that they are doing so and also be clear as to why they are doing it. Anything less is unacceptable.
Are you a Gmail user? What are your thoughts regarding this lawsuit?
Image by FixtheFocus