Gee male on Gmail

Remix of a frame shot by my first boss, Roger Deakins (from Mike Radford's 1984)

Remix of a frame shot by my first boss, Roger Deakins (from Mike Radford’s 1984)

So as you know, as a Gmail user, Google scan the contents of all your emails, regardless of the confidentiality or sensitivity of the content, in order to target advertising at you – and, it turns out, possibly forward stuff to the US National Security Agency. Google’s lawyers refer to it euphemistically as “automated processing” (DoubleSpeak at its finest). Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, memorably used the C Word in summarising the corporate policy behind this: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”

In May a class action centred on data-mining was filed against Google claiming that the company “unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages”. Google’s response last month was that Gmail users have no “reasonable expectation” that their emails are confidential.

The Google lawyers use this telling analogy in their defence: “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 communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS [electronic communications service] provider in the course of delivery.” The skewed nature of their world view is given away by the notion that the modern world of work is full of people with personal assistants. And of course the analogy is equally wide of the mark because Google is more like the Post Office where we have no expectation of the deliverer to open the envelope and “acquire” our content or that of our correspondents (and where what interventions there are are the work of the odd rogue low-life at Mount Pleasant rather than a planned mechanised system on an uber-industrial scale).

Beyond the question of whether Gmail users do actually understand what they are signing up for in terms of surrendering their basic privacy, a huge issue here is that anyone corresponding with a Gmail user is likewise having their data pillaged and raped. Which should raise a big question mark over the use of Gmail in business contexts. Some way beyond the creepy line I’d argue and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be the wrong side of the legal line too.

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