In court filings, Google stated that individuals who send email to people with Gmail accounts have “no legitimate expectation of privacy.” This is not surprising. The surprising thing is that people — ok, some segments of the news media — are surprised by this.
It’s not news. When Gmail first came out, I stated in my LiveJournal that not only was I not rushing out to get Gmail account, I was not going to send email to any GMail users. It was obvious from the beginning that they were going to scan email received by Gmail users. They stated it was only to find keywords that they could use to “fit” ads.
It rapidly became impossible to avoid Gmail. Almost all of my friends moved to using Gmail for their primary email addresses. What the hell, I thought. I got a Gmail account myself. I now have several, used for different purposes.
I got to where I did not see the ads — most of the time, I used my email client anyway. I forgot they were scanning not just my mail, which was reasonable as I had agreed to this when I signed on for the service, but that of my correspondents, who had not.
I was shaken out of my complacency a couple of years ago, when I realized that I was getting the same ads when a particular friend wrote from their personal email as I did the first time they wrote me, which was from their work account. (The ads were connected to their work — the same ads appeared when they emailed me from their personal account, even though none of the emails were related to their job.) Neither address was Gmail. I found the idea that the two accounts were linked in some computer to be terribly upsetting. I once again realized that, in the Google paradigm, privacy was a concept which could be tossed aside in favor of ad revenues.
I don’t completely blame Google: we’re the sheep which make them an insanely profitable company. It’s not just Gmail, either: docs, Google+, search… as a Digg user once observed, “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Notice the “we” above: I use Google like everyone else. I long ago decided that my searches were not going to be a problem, and in any case I could not see anyway around the loss of privacy without more inconvenience that I cared to incur. (Then again, my web searches are mundane to the max.) I don’t use docs for anything that I would not want the world to see. I don’t use Google+, as Facebook has shown less of a desire to take over the entire world. (Facebook’s privacy issues are legion, and the subject for another post.) I moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress, in spite of my being much more comfortable with the Blogger writer interface, and much happier with the customization options, around the time I started being really uncomfortable with the amount of reach Google had into my life.
I still have Gmail, though. I have Gmail accounts for professional and business mail, and one which is used primarily for a spam trap. [Edited to add: notifications from this blog go to one of those accounts. Edited to add, again, on 9/18: Not any more, they don’t. All comments to this post now go to email@example.com.] The difference is that I request my friends send my personal email to an address at our house domain.
Efforts to avoid Gmail are nigh onto impossible. At least half the people I correspond with have Gmail as their primary email provider. The Stanford Alumni email system is now handled through Gmail, and my ISP started to make noises last year about having Google take over their email service.
I recognize that Gmail is a godsend for people who have no other options to get email — it allows them to have an address that they can use for applying to that great job in Sunnyvale, or letting the family know that Jennifer had her baby, or sending the “I’m sorry, Maria, but this isn’t working out” letter to the soon-to-be-ex girlfriend, or any one of the other myriad of things we do in our emails.
[Edited to add: It may seem ridiculous to even speak of my privacy, given the sometimes very personal things I write about here. The core issue for me in any privacy discussion is control: I get to decide what to disclose here. I have not always made wise decisions in that regard, but I got to make those decisions. There are a great many things — some of them very important — that I do not talk about, and when I do disclose something intensely personal, it is for a reason. Often it is to express solidarity with others who have gone through traumatic events, or, in one case, to let people know they are not alone. In all the cases where I have spoken out on delicate matters, I have received grateful and supportive feedback from other women. This is in no way, shape or form the same as someone having access to the personal email you send.]
I know that Google is unlikely to ever use my gmail content for anything but trying to sell me CPAP supplies. I know that, had they wanted to, they could well look at all of it anyway — by a person, not a computer. I try not to entertain the idea that they would be perfectly willing to toss my privacy out the window if it became financially useful for them to do so. I wonder if the only reason they fight so hard against government warrants is that for them not to do so would result in droves of people leaving the service. If the government offered to pay them for the information, I am not so sanguine that they would not be willing to let the feds (or state, or whomever) have it. (Why, yes, I have read Cory Doctorow’s “Scroogled.” But finding the Doctorow story only let me put into words thoughts I was having anyway.)
I would not want my snail mail opened and scanned by the Post Office, regardless of how benign their stated reasons for doing so would be. I hate that the email I send to my friends will not be accorded that same respect.