In August, tech giant Google stated that its users have no “reasonable expectation” of privacy. These statements were made in documents filed in response to a class action lawsuit brought by plaintiffs in California, Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania, who argued that Google violated provisions of the Federal Wiretap Act and the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Though it might appear that Google is abusing consumer trust built over years of users’ familiarity with their services, their actions are reasonable.
The lawsuit alleges that Google violates state and federal provisions against wiretapping when they scan emails for word trends in order to tailor advertisements to specific sets of users. This means that if an individual emailed one of his or her friends about a certain USC football game, then he or she would probably receive football-related ads. This tactic is startling because it raises questions about Google’s power to search seemingly private communications.
But opponents of Google’s rather broad assertions have blown this out of proportion. Some Internet privacy groups characterize the company’s actions as being blanket searches for consumer data; after all, only Google knows where the advertising data ends up, or for how long they keep it. This, however, is a gross overestimation of Google’s use of their resources.
To begin with, any Gmail user sending a message to another Gmail user has the ability to turn off tailored advertisements, and Google also provides the user with the resources to remove their personal information from Gmail and other Google services. The greatest legal and ethical question, therefore, concerns emails sent to users outside of Gmail.
To students using outside providers email for their jobs or in their everyday lives, Google’s use of their personal data might seem like a shock. In this regard, automated processes that look for single words in order to formulate consumer trends are hardly something to worry about. Google online combines data containing specific words and storing them on another computer’s memory. This is easily differentiated from a person executing a search on someone’s computer. Such a search would require a specific purpose apart from numbers and trends. For this reason, Google’s practices in no way conflict with the Fourth Amendment or other constitutional arguments.
Google said its users “voluntarily convey[s] numerical information to the telephone company and ‘exposes’ that information to its equipment in the ordinary course of business.”
It’s no surprise, then, that many courts have followed this line of reasoning when deciding in favor of so many companies, going all the way back to the Smith v. Maryland case of 1979, which was the earliest court case that Google cited in its arguments. As long as the processes remain automated, there remains no concern that the data is being mishandled or misappropriated in some way.
Google’s services are massively popular and enjoyed by more than one billion people worldwide, in over 181 countries. This ruling will have an impact on future forms of communication and the standing of other Internet service providers in the near future, but the public must recognize that it isn’t as bad as it seems.
Jack Merritt is a sophomore majoring in history.