At present there is a class action against Google because of its practice of collecting data about the text used in people’s gmail. The case is being heard in the Northern District Court of California. A submission in the case from Google essentially seems to state that users of gmail should have no expectation of privacy from the data collection and analysis process when using their systems so long as the processes are automated, as in the case of the gmail system.
The class action originally began because a group of gmail users complained that the text of their emails were being scanned in order to produce targeted adwords advertising inside the email client system. Google tried to characterise the situation as similar to when an office assistant opens a letter and the privacy implications of this situation. Google also relied on a statement in the case of Smith v Maryland which said that you can’t expect material to be private if you voluntarily turn it over to someone else.
This reasoning is questionable given the scope and scale of the monitoring occurring in relation to Google’s operations as well as the modern legislation that protects the data privacy of internet users which Google relies upon in responding to subpoena requests. Consumer rights groups has strongly criticised Google’s filing in the court and recommended that people refuse to use Gmail because of the privacy problems it is causing.
Part of the public position of Google on the issue is that the scanning and analysis are performed by algorithms rather than human beings meaning that the data of the user is protected. Also, it submitted to the court that the nature of email technology means that users have to accept that there will be some automated processing of their personal information. Google’s submission also goes on to state that when you send a message over the internet you are consenting to the handling of that message by technology.
All of this seems unconvincing if you imagine the analogy of email as a piece of physical mail. Would you expect the post office to open your mail, put an add in it and then reseal the letter before sending it to you? Surely technology must exist which enables google to essentially put your emails in a sealed envelope for digital transmission. One of the particularly difficult things for Google in this case is that all of this comes at the same time as the deeply worrying disclosures about National Security Agency spying.
Tips for Protecting Your Email Privacy
Although as a user of gmail, you cannot at the moment prevent Google from spying on you, you can take some steps to protect your email privacy in general. To many, it is obvious that you need to avoid posting personal information on social networking sites. However, it is important to remember some basic privacy strategies for email as well. Here are some things to remember about email privacy:
1. Password Security. Keep your password secure and ensure that it is reasonably complicated.
2. Minimize the use of Public PCs. Public computers are notoriously insecure and you could be accidentally recording data about yourself and leaving it available for subsequent users of the computer.
3. Keep your email address private. Avoid making your email address completely public. Bots and scanners scrape the internet for victims by looking for public email addresses.
4. Log off your computer while you are away to prevent snooping by those around you.
5. Never click on an email which asks you for you security information or password. An email provider should never ask you for this information.
6. If you must send confidential information via email, use Encryption software. This type of software is widely available for free from reputable software providers.