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Google says email users have “no legitimate expectation” of privacy

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Google says email users have “no legitimate expectation” of privacy


Speaking about email services in a court filing Google has said: “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

This specific wording, which is a citation of a controversial 1979 case law, was recently brought to public attention by Consumer Watchdog who called it “a stunning admission”. The comment was made in a 39-page motion that aims to dismiss a complaint that the company violates wiretap laws by monitoring non-Google users’ private emails to target advertising to its customers.

Many media sources have used the quotation to reignite the privacy debate. Others have argued it has been taken out of context, American technology network The Verge said: “This line has been widely misinterpreted to make it seem like Google is saying Gmail users have no expectation of privacy when they use Gmail… as the story’s circulated through the media, the comparisons to Edward Snowden, PRISM, and the NSA are flying fast and furious. Which is exactly what the personal-injury lawyers who filed the case seem to want.”

Google argues that its practices are no different to making a call, when numerical information is conveyed to the telephone company. They also likened it to sending a letter: “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 ECS provider in the course of delivery.”

The suit against Google claims the company “unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages… 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.”

The suit refers directly to Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, who once said: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”

The internet giant claims that plaintiffs are attempting to criminalise ordinary business practices which have been in place since the beginning. In its privacy policy, Google explained: “We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.”

A spokesperson added: “We take our users’ privacy and security very seriously; recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue. We have built industry-leading security and privacy features into Gmail — and no matter who sends an email to a Gmail user, those protections apply.”

Photo Credit CC BY Flickr/Robert Scoble

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