As you probably know by now, if you use Gmail, Google scans your email content and serves you ads based on this content. This is one of the ways that Google makes so much money: by serving ads that they think you will click.
Privacy advocates have longed argued that this is an invasion of a user’s privacy, while Google has maintained that their users should have no expectations of privacy when they use Google’s services.
But now Google has been accused of wiretapping in a federal trial in Silicon Valley, and the outcome of this trial could have profound implications not just for email companies, but for any company who scans user information to serve third-party ads.
The plaintiffs in the court case include a number of voluntary Gmail users, users who used Gmail as part of an educational institution and non-Gmail users whose messages were received by Gmail users. These plaintiffs maintain that by scanning their email content, Google is violating state and federal antiwiretapping laws.
Google has tried to dismiss the case saying that the interception of user messages was an ordinary course of business, but the judge overseeing the case disagreed. Judge Lucy Koh argued that the primary reason that Google intercepted the messages was to create user profiles and to target specific ads to the user.
This is an important point, because wiretapping laws exclude anything that can be defined as an “ordinary course of business.” Another hotly debated point had to do with non-Gmail users. When a non-Gmail user sends a message to a Gmail user, this email content is scanned as well. Google maintains that even non-Gmail users knew that their messages were being read. Judge Koh disagreed.
No decision has yet been made in the case, but if Judge Koh rules against Google, the fallout could be huge. Not only would Google be involved in one of the biggest class actions fines ever (over 500 million people use Gmail), but other online companies who employ the same data gathering practices, such as Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft would be affected as well.
The ruling could vastly change what information online companies can access and sell to third-party advertisers without your express consent.
In the meantime, though, it is good to keep in mind that if you use Gmail, or if you send any email to a Gmail user, everything you write is being scanned and stored in a profile, and this profile will most likely be shared with advertisers.
While it’s a bit of a stretch to insist that Google users should not have any expectations of privacy, it’s unconscionable for Google to insist that even non-users of Gmail should have to abide by this privacy violation as well. Up until now, many online companies have been able to get away with sharing your personal information with third parties so they can turn a profit at the expense of your privacy. This case may finally change that once and for all.