Does Google read the email messages sent by users of its free email service known as Gmail? The question has long been debated, but it need not be anymore as Google has admitted it does in an amazing court filing.
The Google admission comes in a Motion to Dismiss filed by Google in a class action filed over the matter. In making the argument, counsel for Google writes:
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.
[See Motion here.]
Assistant or Post Office?
The analogy put forth by Google regarding the "assistant" is meeting with scathing commentary. Commentators such as John Thompson at Consumer Watchdog have noted a better analogy is Google is really acting as a post office.
"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."
Much Ado About Nothing?
The argument in this case is an interesting one when the use of the content is considered. Specifically, what would Google use any of this information for? The answer is keyword targeting of advertisements. This is why users of Gmail see ads suspiciously on topic to the types of sites the user has recently visited.
The larger concern, however, is companies like Google will roll over and provide the data to government agencies such as the NSA. Ultimately, it is a question users will have to answer by either continuing to use the service or fleeing it in mass.