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Google GMail Targeted by Privacy and Civil Liberty Groups

Google GMail Targeted by Privacy and Civil Liberty Groups

Google’s GMail email is currently testing and besides striking fear in Yahoo and Microsoft as a new player in the free webmail market, GMail is also raising questions in the privacy and Internet user rights communities. The big hoopla is about GMail’s AdWords/AdSense contextual ad targeting technology (based on email content). Privacy advocates are raising red flags and contend that there’s one big flaw with Google’s free e-mail service: The company plans to read the messages.

However, Google, being accused of scanning the user’s messages to insert appropriate amount of advertisement into it, has brushed of the acquisition by saying that computerized scanning of e-mails is nothing new because its service performs some essential function as antivirus and anti-spam software, which has to scan e-mail text regularly. No employee of the company actually reads the e-mail while doing so.

Still, Internet privacy hounds are barking. The World Privacy Forum and 27 other privacy and civil liberties organizations have written a letter calling upon Google to suspend its Gmail service until the privacy issues are adequately addressed. The letter also calls upon Google to clarify its written information policies regarding data retention and data sharing among its business units.

Here are some snippets of the open letter to Google:

Dear Mr. Brin and Mr. Page:

Google’s proposed Gmail service and the practices and policies of its business units raise significant and troubling questions.

First, Google has proposed scanning the text of all incoming emails for ad placement. The scanning of confidential email violates the implicit trust of an email service provider. Further, the unlimited period for data retention poses unnecessary risks of misuse.

Second, Google’s overall data retention and correlation policies are problematic in their lack of clarity and broad scope. Google has not set specific, finite limits on how long it will retain user account, email, and transactional data. And Google has not set clear written policies about its data sharing between business units.

Third, the Gmail system sets potentially dangerous precedents and establishes reduced expectations of privacy in email communications. These precedents may be adopted by other companies and governments and may persist long after Google is gone.

We urge you to suspend the Gmail service until the privacy issues are adequately addressed.

Email Scanning in Google’s Proposed Gmail Service

The email text scanning infrastructure that Google has built is powerful and global in reach. Google has not created written policies to date that adequately protect consumers from the unintended consequences of building this structure. It is, in fact, arguable that no policy could adequately protect consumers from future abuses. The societal consequences of initiating a global infrastructure to continually monitor the communications of individuals are significant and far-reaching with immediate and long-term privacy implications.

Currently, individuals may have the understanding that Google’s system is not that different in nature from scanning messages for spam, which is a common practice today. There is a fundamental difference, however. With Gmail, individuals’ incoming emails will be scanned and seeded with ads. This will happen every time Gmail subscribers open their emails to re-read them, no matter how long they have been stored. Inserting new content from third party advertisers in incoming emails is fundamentally different than removing harmful viruses and unwanted spam.

Another potential misconception about the Gmail system is that the scanning will take place in isolation. The email is scanned, and ad text is delivered. But that is not the end of the story. The delivery of the ad text based on emails is a continual “on the fly” stream. This technology requires a substantial supply chain of directory structures, databases, logs, and a long memory. Auditing trails of the ad text are kept, and the data could be correlated with the data Google collects via its other business units such as its search site and its networking site, Orkut.

Google has countered criticism of Gmail by highlighting that a computer, not a human, will scan the content of the e-mail, thereby making the system less invasive. We think a computer system, with its greater storage, memory, and associative ability than a human’s, could be just as invasive as a human listening to the communications, if not more so.

That the Gmail scanning and monitoring is being used for advertising right now is distracting, because it is a transient use. Scanning personal communications in the way Google is proposing is letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle. Today, Google wants to make a profit from selling ads. But tomorrow, another company may have completely different ideas about how to use such an infrastructure and the data it captures.

Google could — tomorrow — by choice or by court order, employ its scanning system for law enforcement purposes. We note that in one recent case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained a court order compelling an automobile navigation service to convert its system into a tool for monitoring in-car conversations. How long will it be until law enforcement compels Google into a similar situation?

Google has been quick to state that it does not intend to correlate or share consumer data between its business units. But unless Google puts a consumer promise into its privacy policy that states it will never correlate the data, then Google is not putting its money where its mouth is. In a nation of laws, Google needs to make its promises in writing.

We request the following of Google:

1. First, Google must suspend its implementation of scanning the full text of emails for determining ad placement.

2. Second, Google must clarify its information retention and data correlation policy amongst its business units, partners, and affiliates. This means that Google must set clear data retention and deletion dates and establish detailed written policies about data sharing and correlation amongst its business units and partners.

Google’s GMail has the potential to catapult Google past the status of the world’s most popular search engine to the world’s top mega Internet portal and perhaps even desktop tool, competiting with Microsoft. However, with such controversy surrounding the GMail testing (yes, this is still in the testing period), one may wonder how well the new email service will take off.

What are your thoughts on Google’s GMail and privacy? Is this a legitimate claim or overblown? Please leave your thoughts below:

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Loren Baker

Loren Baker is the Founder of SEJ, an Advisor at Alpha Brand Media and runs Foundation Digital, a digital marketing ... [Read full bio]

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