TECH

Google's 'No Expectation Of Gmail Privacy' Quote Causes Outrage, But Is It Really That Shocking?

15/08/2013 12:41 BST | Updated 15/10/2013 10:12 BST

The tech world has reacted angrily to the suggestion made by Google that email users have "no legitimate expectation" of privacy when sending messages to Gmail accounts.

But since the initial wave of anger many have called for calm, pointing out that the quote looks far more aggressive than it actually is.

Google is currently subject to a US lawsuit that claims it broke laws when implementing a system that automatically scans email to generate ads.

The complaint relates not to Gmail users - who are covered by (and subject to) Google's unified privacy policy - but other email users who send messages to Gmail accounts.

In a 39-page motion to dismiss the lawsuit, submitted to the court, Google said that its users - or those sending email to Gmail addresses "cannot be surprised" that the content of email is subject to being scanned.

"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."

In citing a 1979 case relating to telephone re-routing, it adds that "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties".

But its submission has been attacked by watchdogs, who said that despite the small print of its terms and conditions users do have some reasonable expectation of privacy.

Consumer Watchdog - a US-based group who released the submission - said that it expected Google to deliver email - but not read it.

CW spokesman John Simpson said:

"Sending an email is like giving a letter to the Post Office. 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. 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?"

But after the initial panic tech bloggers called for calm - and for everyone to actually read the full submission. As has been pointed out by several publications, the case refers explicitly to the fact that Google's servers process email sent by third parties to Gmail users - which is hardly surprising.

Writing for The Verge, Nilay Patel said:

"It's very much true that Google needs to do a better job of communicating and enforcing the steps it takes to protect its customers' privacy… But taking to arms before even reading and understanding 500 words of a legal filing? Surely we can avoid that."