Google Agrees to Change Its Email Scanning Practice

2016-12-21 09:34 Posted by: Judy in , Go to Comment

Google has voluntarily agreed to change its email scanning practice as part of a court settlement. The company will soon wait until emails hit users’ inboxes before scanning for advertising purpose.

Began in September 2015, a class action lawsuit alleged that Google had invaded users’ privacy by scanning their emails for marketers without consent, which had violated the Wiretap Act as well as California’s Invasion of Privacy Act. Since the ad-targeting system of Google draws on all emails a Gmail user receives, it is inevitable that some messages from non-Gmail addresses are caught in the process. It seems especially sensitive to intercept and scan emails before they are available to the user as they are not yet part of Gmail’s inbox. Therefore, the suit specifically was on behalf of plaintiffs who are non-Gmail users but who sent emails to those with Gmail accounts.

The suit also alleged that the email scanning practice for use in advertising to users was not mentioned in Google’s email terms of service and privacy until December 19, 2014, and that Google started intercepting, scanning, and analyzing plaintiff’s communications before it legally obtain their consent. Though Google changed the terms of service after Dec. 19, 2014 to inform users that data is collected for advertising targeting, it failed to notify users of the update or ask users to reconfirm their agreement to the updated terms of service and privacy policy.

Some plaintiffs said that Google scanning email was the same as the US Postal going through mail or a phone company listening in on phone calls. However, Google argued that they had no choice but to scan and sell information if they wanted to continue offering Gmail service for free.

The good news is, Google finally agreed to settle the case via making some changes to its scanning practice. The company promised to postpone the scan of the advertising related emails until after they are accessible in users’ inboxes, while remaining checking emails in advance for the purposes of virus protection and spam filtering. The change for most people means nothing but a few milliseconds of activity; nevertheless for Google, it stands for a significant change to its scanning system in technical perspective. As part of the settlement, Google is reported to be on the hook for as much as $2.2 million in attorney fees and $2,000 for each of the class action representation. The settlement will come into effect as soon as it is approved by the Northern California District Court.

Similar to Google, Yahoo! was subjected to a lawsuit earlier this year. The company was charged with scanning hundreds of millions of its customers’ incoming emails at the behest of U.S. intelligence officials via a secretly built software program. It is the first case having been disclosed that a U.S. internet company agrees to the request from an intelligence agency by searching all arriving messages, but not scanning a small number of accounts in real time or examining stored messages. It is still unknown what information Yahoo! have handed over but it indicates a serious concern that our data security nowadays seems so vulnerable. Whether a so-called law abiding company has the right to share customers’ data with government before being approved by customers themselves? How can we do to protect our information from being violated by either tech companies or government in a legal point of view? The most unfortunate reality is data security is just the tip of the iceberg coming with the rapid development of network. 

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