Google Admits What We All Knew Was True—Gmail Isn’t Private

By Joelle Renstrom | Published

gmail-watchingOh, Google. You’ve gotten so good at pissing people off. In a court filing, Google has admitted that anyone sending email to one of the 425 million Gmail users has “no reasonable expectation” of confidentiality. Consumer Watchdog calls it a “stunning admission,” but I’m thinking, “No shit, people! What did you expect?”

Google has taken some heat for its possible role in the NSA surveillance scandal — I bet Edward Snowden has deleted his Gmail account — but this recent admission stems from Google’s response to a class-action lawsuit filed in July alleging that the company has broken wire tap laws by scanning email from other accounts to better inundate Gmail users with targeted ads. The lawsuit also alleges that Google hasn’t been upfront about disclosing the extent to which they harvest information.

Google responded that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” Well, sure, but a mail man’s a third party too and no one’s cool with him reading our mail, right? Google used the post office as an example that proved their point, as consumers understand their mailed items are subject to scans and searches. And it just so happens that Google borrowed that from a 1979 Supreme Court case that ruled that government had the right to record phone numbers without a warrant if they were sent to a third party.

This isn’t the first time Google has fought such charges in court. In 2011, Google lost a class-action lawsuit brought by residents of nine states whose homes were visible on Google’s Street View. A judge ruled that Google’s data collection (which included email messages, user names, passwords, and other data) violated the federal Wiretap Act. Before that, Google submitted to a $7 million settlement over Street View, and they promised to destroy the data they harvested by the program from 2008-2010.

Consumer Watchdog’s privacy director, John Simpson, advises, “If you care about your email correspondents’ privacy, don’t use Gmail.” There’s just a small part of me that’s freaking out that my boyfriend of three years uses Gmail.

While it seems easy to bash the corporate giant, some people think this is a bit of a witch hunt in the backlash of the NSA scandal. Venturebeat argues that this issue is about email in general, not Google. “Gmail users surrender any hope of complete privacy when they sign up for Gmail, a service that scans the content of emails to not only filter out spam, but also serve users ads. Anyone who is still criticizing Gmail on that front is years late to a discussion that is long over.” And after all, Gmail and Google’s info grabbing are free — but we all know that nothing is really ever free.

Still, I have to wonder what George Orwell would think about this.