In what has been described as a "stunning admission" in a court filing Google says Gmail users should never have expected privacy.
First spotted by the US consumer rights group Consumer Watchdog, the "stunning admission" comes in a brief filed recently in federal court as part of Google's motion to dismiss a class action filed in May by both Gmail users and non-Gmail users that claims Google commits an illegal "interception" when it applies "automated (non-human) scanning to emails involving Gmail users."
In its motion to dismiss Google says:
"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.'"
In response John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director said: "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."
The class action revolves around a process that is a "standard and fully-disclosed" part of the Gmail service according to Google's motion. Every time you send an email using its Gmail service, Google automatically 'reads' your email in order to serve up appropriate ads to you and/or the person receiving the email.
In its brief Google says the plaintiffs' claim fails "as matter of law for multiple reasons" among which is the fact that all applicable state and federal wiretaps laws specifically exempt electronic communication service providers from liability "based on conduct in their ordinary course of business."
However Google's admission that Gmail users should never expect privacy when sending emails comes at a time when consumers in the US in particular are on edge following the revelations by NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden who claimed the US government agency had unfettered access to the servers of Google, as well as Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and others.
Dismissing the Google analogy about sending a letter, Simpson, who is a long-time critic of the search giant, said:
"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?"