Google Claims Right to Rifle Through All Gmail Messages

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Google Claims Right to Rifle Through All Gmail Messages

In a brief filed in a federal court, Google claims that users have no expectation of privacy with regard to e-mail content.

“If you care about your email correspondents’ privacy don’t use Gmail.” That’s the advice given by Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, John M. Simpson.

On August 12, Simpson’s organization released a court document filed by Google in a federal case in Northern California District Court.

In the “Motion to Dismiss” obtained by Consumer Watchdog, Google’s attorneys argue:

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."

The tech giant whose very name has become a verb admits to the court, but tellingly not to its millions of users, that there is nothing private in any electronic communication facilitated by its Gmail service.

Regarding the bizarre sender/assistant analogy employed by the white-stocking law firm hired by Google to protect its interests, John Simpson writes, “Google’s brief uses a wrong-headed analogy; sending an email is like giving a letter to the Post Office,” said Simpson. “I expect the Post Office to deliver the letter based on the address written on the envelope. I don’t expect the mail carrier to open my letter and read it. Similarly when I send an email, I expect it to be delivered to the intended recipient with a Gmail account based on the email address; why would I expect its content will be intercepted by Google and read?”

Although Google’s admission may be something of an unexpected revelation to the millions of people who rely on Gmail for their electronic communication, there is precedent for the denial of privacy in the third-party transmission of information.

In the case of Smith v. Maryland (1979), the court held that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

The court in that case ruled that if someone is talking to another person by way of a medium provided by a third-party (in the Smith case it was a telephone company), both parties must expect that the “intermediary” will have access to the content of the communication.

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