Think Your Gmail Is Private? Google Says: Think Again


In defense of the role it plays in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals that has drawn significant criticism, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has successfully dug itself a little deeper. According to The Guardian, in a court filing that was discovered by the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, Google maintained that Gmail users should have no “reasonable expectation” that their emails are confidential, because the search giant has always maintained that user messages are subject to automated processing, and have been since the service’s founding.

The court filing comes after Google was accused in May of scanning and opening private email messages that help it better cater its ads to appropriate Gmail users. Although Google CEO Eric Schmidt contends that, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” the suit charges that the search giant did just that, reading, “Unbeknown to millions of people, on a daily basis and for years, Google has systematically and intentionally crossed the ‘creepy line’ to read private email messages containing information you don’t want anyone to know, and to acquire, collect, or mine valuable information from that mail.”

Google fought back in July, working to dismiss the class action lawsuit by painting the detected email processing as “ordinary business practices,” but when it claimed that people should not expect their emails to be confidential, Consumer Watchdog capitalized on its opportunity to jump down Google’s throat with John Simpson, private project director explaining, highlighted by The Guardian, ”Google has finally admitted that they don’t respect privacy. People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy, don’t use Gmail.”

Privacy continues to be a hot topic in the consumer business sphere, as well as the political one, because not only have Gmail users been warned that their email is being scanned, but other evidence highlighted earlier in the summer also suggests that phone records are not safe either. A shocking report from The Guardian in June elucidated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was granted the access back in April to require Verizon (NYSE:VZ) to hand over its customers’ telephone records to the National Security Agency, helping deter violence and terrorist threats. The order, granted April 25, is not only limited to telephone numbers, but also to location and duration of calls as well as unique identifiers.

It was signed 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombing, but the initial secret court order was obtained through a George W. Bush administration policy that began with the Terrorist Surveillance Program in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. The order incited controversy then, and it is still doing so today.

More and more consumers are watching what they say in emails and over the phone, but how else can they communicate without feeling as though they’re being watched or overheard? Some maintain that users should have nothing to hide, while others argue that no matter what, they have a right to privacy. Google’s latest admission suggests that Gmail users should have no “reasonable expectation” about confidentiality, so maybe now consumers will finally begin to remember that.

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