Gmail users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, says Google

Google denied that it violates consumers' privacy when it reads e-mails, according to court documents 

Jeff Chiu/ AP Photo/ File
Google bicycles at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Gmail users have no "reasonable expectation" of privacy, according to court documents.

Gmail users and their contacts have no reasonable expectation that their correspondences will not be scanned for the purpose of targeting advertising, according to a Google court document.

“People who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [e-mail provider] in the course of the delivery,” reads a Google federal court brief.

Consumer Watchdog, a longtime antagonist to the Internet giant, published the document on Monday. The case centered on complaints that Google was scanning e-mails transmitted over the company’s servers to target advertising.

“You drop a letter in the mail, someone opens it, that’s a federal crime,” says Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director John M. Simpson in an interview with the Monitor. E-mail correspondences should be no different in regards to privacy, Mr. Simpson continues.

Google responded with a statement that the company takes its privacy and security very seriously. "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," according to a statement the company emailed to the Monitor. 

Simpson’s assertion highlights a glaring issue that continues to face all companies with access to their users' data: Federal data privacy laws have not kept up with technology.

In Google’s court brief, the company describes its systematic collection of data for the purposes of targeted advertising as an “ordinary business practice.” The company’s lawyers cite Smith v. Maryland, which states “a person has no legitimate expectation in privacy information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” As third parties to all e-mail correspondences, service providers have no claims to privacy. 

Google and other Internet service providers’ information-harvesting techniques have come under increased public scrutiny in the past few months after former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden leaked classified documents detailing a large-scale, secret data collection plan, PRISM.

“The NSA could not be doing what it was doing if these various tech companies weren’t such treasure troves of data,” says Simpson. “I mean Google is really a data mining company that knows more about you and me” than we probably do. 

Update: The story has been corrected to clarify that Google was referring to non-gmail users who use Gmail have no reasonable expectation of privacy– not Gmail users. 

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