UPDATE: A reader asked in the comments if paid, corporate Gmail accounts are also scanned. Yes, they are. From Google: “For companies using Google Apps for Business, ads are turned off by default. Automated scanning does still occur to provide features like priority inbox, fast search and spam filtering.”
Who “owns” the content inside your email messages? If you use Gmail, not you.
Google is fighting a lawsuit filed by users who are angry over its practice of scanning Gmail messages. Here’s what Google has to say about your right to privacy:
“A person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties…Gmail users consented to the automated scanning of their e-mails, including for purposes of delivering targeted advertising, in exchange for using the Gmail service.”
I suppose that point is somewhere in the fine print of Google’s Gmail user terms, but take a look at this page and see if you can find it. I can’t.
I accept that Google sells advertising, and those of us who use its services are customers who pay for the privilege by having ads directed our way. Targeted ads are annoying, but I’m willing to put up with them; I think of them as a use tax.
I also understand that Google claims no human ever reads Gmail messages.That may well be true. But Google also said its Street View cars weren’t scooping up data from Wi-Fi networks – but they were.
Past indiscretions aside, there’s a larger point. What you write in your email is being scanned for a reason. It’s sold to data brokers that sell it to advertisers. Can Google guarantee the data is simply aggregated and that brokers and advertisers adhere to legal and ethical principles? Not really, no.
The New York Timesrecently ran a piece about a website called AbouttheData.com, which lets you log in – if you don’t mind giving Acxiom, the data broker that hosts it, a few more bits of personal information – and see what the company knows about you. You might be shocked by what you find.
“Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy don’t use Gmail.”
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.