Is the Gmail Privacy Flap Just a Big Misunderstanding?

itcblog-marcusSummary Bullets:

  • Google has come under fire recently from a consumer organization which pointed to a company filing to claim Gmail users can have “no expectation of privacy”, given the company’s email processing function described in the public document. With Gmail in use by thousands of enterprises, business owners may be concerned about a potential breach in trust.
  • As it happens, the claims reveal no new information about any processes used by Google to manage its popular email service. Unfortunately, the press loves a story that makes Google out as “Big Brother” or worse, especially given the NSA surveillance revelations of recent months. Users should continue to trust Google as much or as little as they did prior to this press storm.

What Happened?

Google is in court over privacy concerns, fighting a class-action lawsuit that accuses it of breaking wiretap laws when it scans emails in order to target advertisements to Gmail users. It claims Google “unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages”. In a bid to dismiss the suit, filed in May, Google explained that in the delivery of its service, messages could not be hidden from the company, seeing as it needs to process and display them for users. An unfortunate wording in its filing implies users shouldn’t expect “objective confidentiality”, but the company was trying to be transparent about the reality of electronic communication, the messages transmitted by which are by definition exposed to the software and machines running the system.

Nothing to See Here

The phrasing, unfortunately, was too irresistible for Google’s detractors to let pass. Here is a corporate giant saying it can’t guarantee your private information won’t be read—indeed, a certain spin could be applied to say it definitely will be read. Is it possible that this was simply a big misunderstanding? As it happens, Consumer Watchdog, the group behind all this, does not have consumers’ interests at the heart of its agenda. Rather, its agenda is attacking Google – a tactic it has previously used to promote its own products. Its press release was hugely successful in generating the headlines it sought, leaving business users of Gmail (and indeed, non-Gmail users who simply send mail to Gmail accounts) questioning the security of their data. But the claims reveal nothing new about what goes on behind the curtain at Google. In effect, all Google was saying was that email users must expect email providers to process, forward, route, and display their messages because, well, that’s their job. While another blog was charitable in suggesting Consumer Watchdog lacked an understanding of the technology, it is much more likely that the organization simply used its own agenda to shape its interpretation of the company’s legal argument.

What do you think?

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