Google argues for right to continue scanning Gmail (Update 2)

Sep 05, 2013 by Martha Mendoza

Google's attorneys say their long-running practice of electronically scanning the contents of people's Gmail accounts to help sell ads is legal, and have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to stop the practice.

In a federal court hearing Thursday in San Jose, Google argued that "all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 individuals, is expected to be certified as a class action and is widely seen as a precedent-setting case for other email providers.

The plaintiffs say Google "unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people's private email messages" in violation of California's privacy laws and federal wiretapping statutes. The lawsuit notes that the company even scans messages sent to any of the 425 million active Gmail users from non-Gmail users who never agreed to the company's terms.

"This company reads, on a daily basis, every email that's submitted, and when I say read, I mean looking at every word to determine meaning," said Texas attorney Sean Rommel, who is co-counsel suing Google.

And Rommel said "the data that's being amassed by this company" could be used for more than just targeting advertising, although the parts of the lawsuit discussing what more Google might be doing with private information is currently under seal.

"The injury is two-fold: the privacy invasion and the loss of property. Google is taking people's property because they can get it for free as opposed to paying for it," said Rommel.

Judge Lucy Koh said she would consider Google's request to terminate the case, but she said she is also interested in scheduling a trial for next year, indicating she is unlikely to dismiss. She did not say when she would decide.

Scrutinizing Google's privacy policy, Koh noted that it doesn't specify that Google is scanning Gmail when it describes the type of information it's collecting.

"Why wouldn't you just say 'the content of your emails?'" she asked.

Google attorney Whitty Somvichian said that the company is attempting to have a single privacy policy for all of its services, meaning it didn't separately reference every single product.

But he said it's "inconceivable" that someone using a Gmail account would not be aware that the information in their email would be known to Google.

Google has repeatedly described how it targets its advertising based on words that show up in Gmail messages. For example, the company says if someone has received a lot of messages about photography or cameras then it might display an advertisement from a local camera store. Google says the process is fully automated, "and no humans read your email..."

"Users, while they're using their Google Gmail account, have given Google the ability to use the emails they send and receive for providing that service," Somvichian said in court. "They have not assumed the risk that Google will disclose their information and they fully retain the right to delete their emails."

Privacy advocates have long questioned the practice, and were closely watching the lawsuit.

"In this Gmail case Google is trying to argue that its technology is exempt from privacy and wiretap laws. If they win, it will set a horrible precedent that they will try to apply to other Google technologies greatly threatening consumers' privacy rights," Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director John Simpson said on Thursday.

Explore further: Facebook to pay $20 mln settlement in ads lawsuit

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User comments : 7

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Hev
5 / 5 (1) Sep 05, 2013
This does feel much the same as if they entered your home uninvited and checked what furniture and appliances you had in order to deluge you with targeted ads, through the post, on the phone, and by email. Actually perhaps they have...
Claudius
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 05, 2013
Don't have a Gmail account. Now I have all the more reason not to.
krundoloss
1 / 5 (5) Sep 05, 2013
Google has to make money somehow, so I guess they do it by offering free services and then mining the data to get marketing info, then using that to benefit their online ads. Seems harmless to me, and at least they are trying to send you ads that you may be interested in!

Honestly, I am surprised that anyone pays attention to online ads. You can thank all the bad guys for that. I am in IT, and we tell anyone and everyone to ignore ANY advertisement on the web. They are universally bad. I do not trust them and I would NEVER click on them. If I did see something that interested me, I would research it independently of the advertisement, I would never click on the ad itself. If online ads were guaranteed to be virus and malware free, then maybe people would be more interested in online ads.
PhyOrgSux
1 / 5 (5) Sep 05, 2013
Quite ridiculous, in my opinion, for anyone to take the statements of a large enterprise at face value and accept what they now may claim to do (or not do). But a "fool" and his privacy are soon parted to copy that old saying...(not really wanting to refer to anyone as a fool though)

This would not be the first time Google is found stretching the truth. But then again since their revenue stream is based on advertizing (this is their core business to the point that they are more an advertizing company than an IT company), they are more dependent on a large, active, user base than IT companies such as Oracle, IBM, etc.

Without good PR > less users > less people to profile > less revenue
kochevnik
1 / 5 (4) Sep 05, 2013
Gmail is fine for trivial communications. Of course PGP is mandatory for anything private
Humpty
1 / 5 (6) Sep 06, 2013
The only good thing about Google is the generally high quality of their software.... but the saturation advertising at all levels on every medium - the predictive analytics - it's like "fuck off."

It way past the point of being utterly insipid.

I write an email about XYZ subject to a friend - not intending to do anything other than perhaps comment / copy paste an article of mutual interest....

"Solar car with new motor technology gets 1000Km to the litre - blah blah blah."

Then I get squillions of adds from Google about CARS, SOLAR power, FUEL additives, GPS systems, RENEWABLE power systems, etc., etc., etc....

There are 3 problems with this.

1. I don't wan the adds.

2. I don't want to buy

3. How much money do I have and how many things can I buy and use in one lifetime?

4. "What are you people? Stupid?

Thanks to the people who have enough brains to bring out software to block this never ending stream of stupid shit.

Add Block Plus and Element Hiding Hider for ABP.
alfie_null
not rated yet Sep 08, 2013
This does feel much the same as if they entered your home uninvited and checked what furniture and appliances you had in order to deluge you with targeted ads, through the post, on the phone, and by email. Actually perhaps they have...

Bad analogy. A better one would be if someone who runs a timeshare resort invited you to stay for free, but then required you to sit through a sales presentation. You don't own the gmail account Google provides you with. TANSTAAFL.