(Source: opensourceway/Flickr)
Consumer watchdog groups call admission "stunning"

While Google Inc. (GOOG) insists its actions are perfectly legal, what the world's top internet firm is doing with your email may come as a shocking surprise for some.

I. Google is Reading Your Mail (Sort of)

Google in a court filing this week wrote:

All users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.

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.

So what does Google mean by "automated processing" and "opening"?  Well it turns out that if someone from a different service emails one of Gmail's 425 million users, Google opens that message and scans it looking for keywords -- even when the message is a non-Gmail user and has not agreed to Google's legal terms.  It then uses those keywords to target advertisements at you and your contacts.

Google Motion to Dismiss 061313 by steven_musil

Google insists it does nothing wrong.  By its reckoning, Gmail users have already signed its terms of service (ToS) which gives it the permission to scan their traffic in order to target ads at them.  

Google says once you sign its ToS, it has the right to parse your email. [Image Source: CNN]

As for those who haven't signed the ToS -- non-Gmail users sending a message to a Gmail account -- Google cites a highly controversial 1979 Supreme Court ruling -- Smith v. Maryland -- which said that citizens lose their "right" to privacy whenever they hand personal documents off to a third party.  Former CEO and current executive chairman Eric Schmidt comments, "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it."

II. Is Google a "Secretary" or a "Post Office"?

But some see the admission in a far different way.  John Simpson, head of the privacy project at Consumer Watchdog, comments to The Guardian:

Google’s brief uses a wrong-headed analogy; sending an email is like giving a letter to the Post Office. I expect the Post Office to deliver the letter based on the address written on the envelope. I don’t expect the mail carrier to open my letter and read it.

Similarly, when I send an email, I expect it to be delivered to the intended recipient with a Gmail account based on the email address; why would I expect its content will be intercepted by Google and read?

Google has finally admitted they don't respect privacy.  People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents' privacy, don't use Gmail.

A Google spokesperson takes issue with that opinion, arguing:

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.

Google sees itself as your secretary, not your post office. [Image Source: WiseGeek]

The filing comes courtesy of a class action lawsuit against Google filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, with a familiar face -- Judge Lucy Koh -- presiding.  The suit was filed on April 9, 2013 and the potential class is being represented by Mike Slocumb, a top Maryland personal injury lawyers.  In the lawsuit filing Mr. Slocumb writes:

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, and to acquire, collect, or mine valuable information from that mail.

The suit specifically accuses Google of malicious business practices and of breaking the law by violating Californian state wiretapping laws (Cal. Penal Code § 632) that require both parties to consent to the recording of a conversation.  Google calls these claims ridiculous and has attacked the suit's premise arguing that it is "an attempt to criminalize ordinary business practices."

III. Concerns Regarding NSA Spying Grow

The case was filed well before the recent leaks from former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) administrator Edward Snowden.  Mr. Snowden revealed that the government reads a great deal of email of U.S. citizens without warrant.  Google has publicly appeared to fight government data grabs, however some fear it may be turning over its emails quietly behind close doors.

Reportedly the U.S. federal government has also approached Google demanding it give an encryption "master key" for rapid decryption of Gmail's encrypted message packets.  Such a key would allow organizations like the NSA to intercept and decrypt your email at a network level, without ever actually having to send a data request to Google itself.

NSA email
Leaked NSA slides show the U.S. gov't is keen on gaining access to private Gmail messages.
[Image Source: The Guardian]

It is unclear exactly how much email is read a day, but the NSA admits to reviewing ~77,000 gigabytes of data daily on a daily basis, after filtering through 1.6 percent of the world's web traffic daily.  That's the equivalent of 7.7 billion emails, 2.5 million hours of 128 kbps mp3 audio, or 18,000 hours of 720p video [source: 123].

Google's court filing offered little insight regarding possible government data grabs, though.  This is not necessarily surprising as it is illegal to talk publicly about these U.S. government programs or share information about them with U.S. citizens.

Other organizations -- such as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have also admitted to reading citizens' email, while trying to argue that their behavior is justified and legal.

Sources: Google via Scribd, The Guardian

"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet.  A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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