google, gmail, privacy, information management If you always suspected that Google was reading your emails, in a legal motion filed in a California court, Google admits that it is indeed doing just that. And ... it says that users should not expect the content of their emails to be private.


Google Admits Reading Emails

The statement appears in a brief requesting the dismal of a class-action lawsuit against the company for data mining.

The filing, which was made last month and which has only just been surfaced by the consumer organization ConsumerWatch, admits that emails are being scanned, but says it is doing so to crack down on spam and other undesirable elements that are passing through emails. The filing states:

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 emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’” (Motion to dismiss, Page 19).

The complaint was made against Google in a multi-district litigation and claims that the company is in breach of California’s wiretap laws.

Users Agree To Email Reading?

However, Google has admitted in the past that it has scanned users’ emails to glean information that will be used to provide personalized advertising based on the content of a user’s Gmail. It has also said that none of this information is read by human eyes, but that it is all machine-scanned.

Google also points out that users have agreed to this by signing up to the terms and conditions that must be ticked before you can open a Gmail account. It also argues that if the complaint is upheld there is a reasonable possibly that this could make spam filtering and inbox search criminal offenses. The filing reads:

Last, Plaintiffs’ claims should be rejected because they would lead to anomalous results with far-ranging consequences beyond the allegations in the Complaint. Plaintiffs’ theory–that any scanning of email content by ECS providers is illegal–would effectively criminalize routine practices that are an everyday aspect of using email. Indeed, Plaintiffs’ effort to carve out spam filtering and virus detection from their claims underscores the fact that their theory of liability would otherwise encompass these common services that email users depend on.

Microsoft’s Privacy Battle

This is not the first time that this has come up. Earlier in the year Microsoft used it to scare users into using its service.

In February it launched a national campaign in the US where it warned people about the risks of “…getting scroogled”, a neat play between the words ‘screwed’ and ‘Google’, which left no one guessing what it meant. In it, Microsoft claimed that it only scanned emails for spam and viruses, while Google reads every single word of an email for is advertisement placement. The question here is whether you believe Microsoft or not.

If the recent revelations about the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden had not emerged, Google may have actually managed to have the complaint thrown out on the basis that users signed-up to the terms and conditions.

As it is, the anger over the Snowden claims have created an atmosphere where Google may find its argument difficult to make. The case will be heard on September 5.