Google is scanning your emails

On Monday, Google’s terms of service were updated to officially spell out its right to scan its users emails. The amendment reads:

“Our automated systems analyse your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customised search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Previously the terms of service simply stated that Google was analysing your content, without specifying that this included scanning private emails. The change has come following a lawsuit against Google, filed by Gmail users, and non-users who have sent emails to Gmail accounts. The lawsuit claims that Google was, until Monday, in violation of US federal and state wiretapping laws by scanning private communication without consent.

Google attempted to have the case dismissed by arguing that users had given either implied or explicit consent by using the product in the first place, however, the claims were rejected after it was noted that Google’s terms of service did not specify that emails were being scanned.

The updated clause continues:

“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

During a motion filed last year, Google defended the practice of scanning emails, saying that users who send their communications through a third-party cannot expect privacy. “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.”

Read more at the Guardian website

Opinion: Are you really surprised?

I suspect that many Gmail users already knew that Google was scanning emails. Gmail allows users to search for any email in the inbox or archive using a function similar to a Google search. There is no way such a feature could work without scanning emails, but it’s such a useful tool nobody wanted to question it.

But now that Google has taken the clear, honest and straightforward approach, letting its users know exactly what is happening to their emails and how, it’s turned into a witch-hunt. Nobody likes the idea of private emails being read by strangers – it’s creepy and has shades of Big-Brother. But Google has made it abundantly clear that email scanning is a fully automated process – a computer reads the data your computer is sending and uses this to generate more data to automatically give you relevant advertising or let you search through a backlog of 10,000 emails for that one joke your sister sent you two years ago about a man riding a horse called Friday. There are no human beings involved in the process, and nobody but the sender and receiver is actually reading your email correspondence.

I think anyone using the internet for anything, whether it be emailing friends, writing a blog or searching YouTube needs to understand that privacy online is tenuous, at best. By being involved with the World Wide Web you are making your online movements known to anyone with the know-how to watch. This is a fact of 21st century life and it isn’t going away. Trying to legislate against it at this point would be like trying to cork a volcano.

I’m not saying that your privacy shouldn’t be respected. Just because someone can access your data doesn’t mean that they should. Companies such as Google understand that if they breach this privacy even once without a morally defensible reason, then they will break what trust they do have with their users, probably permanently. It’s those who have no moral code to uphold, such as the hackers, of whom you need to be wary.

So it seems there are two options. You can go offline, permanently, and reclaim your privacy. Or you can continue to use the internet and hope that you fly under the radar. But these days it’s difficult to have it both ways.

What do you think? Should Google stop scanning emails and simply offer fewer personalised services? Does it worry you that such a big corporation knows so much about so many people worldwide? Or is this just a fact of internet life?