If you know me, you know I’m not a huge fan of the way Google operates. You may have heard me discuss my plan to cut ties with all Google services (quick update: still using Gmail and search). Yesterday, The Guardian reported that a class action lawsuit filed in May against Google had prompted a shocking response. Consumer Watchdog called it a “stunning admission” that Google does not respect the privacy of Gmail users. I guess this is news to a lot of people. According to Google in the filing:
…all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.
This is true. All email must be processed in some fashion by the mail server before it is delivered. However, what Google means is that their email servers open and read every email and scan it for content and context to be used in targeting ads. Google then suggested that you should have no expectation of 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 communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS [electronic communications service] provider in the course of delivery.
So the Internet is now up in arms over this statement. The debate seems to be between those who see this as a purposeful and ongoing violation of privacy and those who see it as a necessary evil with positive results (such as actually relevant ads and better search results).
As usual, my concern in this debate is neither of the two. My question is “why is this suddenly an issue now?” Was I the only one (figuratively, of course) who was aware of this practice for the last ten years? How could you not notice that the ads in Gmail are strangely relevant to the emails you’ve been sending and receiving lately?
Here’s a 2004 CNN Money article explaining how Google scanning your emails will improve ad revenue:
However, the ads that appeared next to my e-mails were startlingly relevant. In an e-mail exchange with an editor in which I asked about an NDA (short for “nondisclosure agreement,” something tech journalists sign regularly), ads for standard-form nondisclosure agreements appeared next to my message.
Gmail was still in beta at this time. The fact that emails sent through Gmail would be parsed and analyzed was common knowledge, and was, in fact, a selling point for Google AdSense.
There’s really nothing new to be upset about. It’s not a “stunning admission”. If you don’t like this revelation, you should be upset by the fact that all of their products exist because they collect information about you.
Google was built on collecting data through web traffic. When people started using native phone apps for activities that used to be done through the browser, Google countered with Android. When cataloging your search history wasn’t enough, Google offered DNS services, and then actual Internet connectivity in order to record every website you visit. Google Maps records your location. Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Voice log your communications. Google Plus is a repository of your personal information and social habits. Google Analytics collects information about web traffic on websites that utilize it.
I know there will be some folks who read this and think that I’m just stating the obvious, or that I’m just hating on Google. If you were aware of all of this and you still use and like Google products and services, hey, that’s great. I’m not trying to be down on you. That’s your choice and you are welcome to it.
What I’m trying to do is explain to those who are outraged by the Gmail SNAFU that this is not a single incident. You should have no expectation of privacy with Gmail, or any Google service. That’s their shtick. I’m not telling you to stop using their services, I’m telling you to adjust your expectations. Google scans my Gmail account. I don’t consider it a violation of privacy, because I don’t consider those emails private.