Google’s Stupid Sophistry Over Gmail Privacy

Google is using false reasoning to justify its scanning of Gmail messages, says Tom Brewster

There’s been plenty of heated Internet debate today about a Google quote from a civil action suit surrounding its scanning of Gmail messages for targeted ads. It reads as follows:

“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.””

google-london-officeThis quote was brought to light by the Consumer Watchdog organisation in the US taking the legal fight to Google – and it has understandably riled a lot of people. The Next Web argued the histrionics were unjustified, that to claim Google has given up on user privacy would be “disingenuous”.

Google’s Gmail dishonesty

But let’s be clear, it is Google that is being disingenuous. Its comparison with the physical letter uses false logic – it is downright sophistry. For one, an assistant is not the same as an email provider. Unless, of course, your PA can scan letters, use algorithms implanted in their brain, pick out keywords and use them to decide which adverts to show their boss. And then, somehow, make themselves ludicrous sums of money doing all this. It’s bizarre reasoning. Maybe Google has crazy robotic assistants handling their mail, walking around with updating marketing placards, but no one else does.

Google then goes on to quote a case involving a telephone company tracking dialled numbers, from 1979, and in doing so only doubles the speciousness of its argument. Tracking numbers is not the same as scanning the actual content of emails  to make money – which does in some way invade privacy, no matter how much you argue the other way.

Given that Google repeatedly claims it respects privacy, and then repeatedly undermines itself by doing stupid things (e.g. the Street View Wi-Spy debacle), I’m amazed the company can be as glib as it’s being. People do have a reasonable expectation of privacy and Google knows it. If they don’t get privacy with Google, they will go to others, even if most common email is vulnerable to snooping.

The stupidest thing is that Google doesn’t have to act like this. It could be, you know, transparent. I use Gmail. I don’t have a problem with Google scanning my emails. Sure, go ahead and show me adverts that I will never click on. As long as the service remains free I’m happy, and if I want to keep something secret over email I’ll use PGP. Or I’ll use some other form of communication with end-to-end encryption.

But why mislead people, Google? I, and many others, have a problem with that.

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