Users of Google’s Gmail service have further reason to be concerned about the likelihood their email messages are being accessed, according to a recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek (March, 2014).
A class action suit in California on behalf of millions is being considered, though its prospects currently appear to be questionable. But underlying it are some interesting revelations about how Gmail users’ messages are being handled.
The incidents in question involved not just Gmail users, but also non-Gmail users whose messages make their way through Google’s systems. Foremost among these are the many universities powered by Google Apps for Education. Billions of message are said to be involved. But those underlying details are indeed curious and revealing. Read on…
It seems Google uses a device called the Content One box to intercept emails. Originally, Content One was used on the Gmail storage system to intercept and scan email traffic. But then, according to BusinessWeek, “Google discovered Content One could not extract information from unopened or deleted emails, or from emails accessed by phones or through Microsoft Outlook.”
So the company allegedly changed the process to capture emails before they are delivered to intended participants, not after they are stored in a user’s email account. According to plaintiff’s lawyer Sean Rommel, “there is not a single disclosure in the record that identifies, alerts or tells anybody that there is an interception occurring.” As the article notes, this is tantamount to wiretapping. While stored communications don’t get much in the way of protections, live unopened communications are another matter.
Google typically mines messages of course for ad purposes, though its methods and practices are well guarded secrets. Still, it’s big business, as the digital ad market racked up $42 billion in U.S. revenues alone last year.
All of which goes to underscore the point made by Berkeley law professor Chris Hoofnagle who notes, “It’s inappropriate to allow a company to generate knowledge from those documents. I don’t think we understand how valuable the information is, and the consequences of it.”