Monday 07 October, 2013
Google Sued for Wiretapping – Federal Judge Says Google May Be Breaking the Law by Scanning Your Email Messages
On September 26th 2013, U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh ruled that Google may have violated federal and California wiretapping laws by scanning users’ email messages. The reason cited was that it wasn’t made clear to users. The decision was made in response to a motion by Google to dismiss a case brought against it in the Northern District of California.
Google’s Email Scanning
It has been known for quite some time that Google scans users’ email messages in order to deliver targeted ads to their inboxes. When this fact came to light, it got privacy advocates up in arms, but many considered it harmless since it was only for the purpose of delivering advertising.
In its defense, Google claims that what it does isn’t wiretapping because no human actually scans the messages. They’re scanned by a program. The definition of wiretapping states that a ‘device’ must be used and Google says there is no device. Furthermore, it says its users signed its Terms of Service and are thus aware of the scanning.
Users and Non-Users Alike
However, the plaintiffs in the case against Google point out that although its users are aware, users of other email services Google users are communicating with aren’t. What this means is that if you’re a Yahoo user who sends an email to a Gmail user, Google is scanning your email even though you haven’t given consent. This is the basis of the complaint.
The ruling by Judge Koh allows the plaintiffs to refile and for the lawsuit to proceed. The plaintiffs in the case represent non-Google users whose mails are scanned along with those of Google users.
Her ruling said, “The court finds that it cannot conclude that any party — Gmail users or non-Gmail users — has consented to Google’s reading of e-mail for the purposes of creating user profiles or providing targeted advertising.”
A Business Exception
Google claimed that its scanning was exempt from wiretapping laws due to a ‘business exception.’ In other words, it’s spying on emails in order to advertise and generate revenue, and not for any other purpose.
To Google’s defense that its scanning of emails was a business exception, the judge said,
“Accordingly, the statutory scheme suggests that Congress did not intend to allow electronic communication service providers unlimited leeway to engage in any interception that would benefit their business models, as Google contends. In fact, this statutory provision would be superfluous if the ordinary course of business exception were as broad as Google suggests.”
Google currently has 450 million users around the world. This includes users of Gmail, its email service, as well as the company’s Google Apps business.