PSU Vanguard Shield Icon

If Google ogles your e-mail, will Ashcroft be far behind?

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News onThursday, April 15:

Google has a privacy problem on its hands.

On April 1, Google quietly launched a test version of aWeb-based e-mail service that offers users massive amounts ofstorage, 1 gigabyte, for free. There’s a catch. Google’s computerswill scan each e-mail message and serve up ads related to themessage’s content.

If your girlfriend e-mails you about your coming Hawaii trip,don’t be surprised to see an ad for the Princeville Resort inKauai.

Privacy advocates first thought the service, dubbed G-mail, wasan April Fool’s joke. It’s not. So they went into full alarm mode,raising a flurry of concerns, some legitimate and some overblown.California state Sen. Liz Figueroa says she is consideringlegislation that would keep e-mail messages from being scanned.

G-mail certainly raises troubling privacy questions. Electroniccommunications, such as phone conversations and e-mail, have longenjoyed strong privacy safeguards. Law enforcement authorities mustjump through many hoops before they are allowed to snoop on them.Why, then, should a private company such as Google be able to gothrough the contents of your e-mail?

Google responded, saying that it’s not humans doing thescanning, but rather computers. Anti-spam filters already do this,the company said. Google has further given assurances that it willnot share anything relating to your e-mail messages withadvertisers or anyone else. And it will not build databases or userprofiles based on the contents of e-mails.

Google has a reputation for being a responsible corporatecitizen. Its assurances are a good start, but its answers are notfully satisfactory. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of Google’scontent scanning is that it will forever erode the expectation ofprivacy in e-mail. Other services, such as Yahoo and Microsoft,could be pressured to imitate it. And it won’t be long before lawenforcement agencies say they, too, want in. If that soundsparanoid, well, it’s exactly the argument that defenders of thePentagon’s Orwellian Total Information Awareness program used: “Ifcredit card companies can rifle through your transactions, why notus?”

Some of Google’s defenders simply say that if you don’t wantyour e-mail scanned, don’t sign up. But when non-G-mail users sende-mails to a G-mail account, their messages will be scanned withouttheir consent. That is not only troubling but it also could runafoul of laws in certain jurisdictions, such as the European Union,that have stronger privacy protections.

Google ought to engage privacy advocates in a thorough debateover their concerns. As it does so, it should work to make itsprivacy policies crystal clear. And it should give customers achoice to opt-in to, rather than opt-out of, the targeted ads, asthe company said it is considering.

For her part, Sen. Figueroa would do well to hold her fire togive Google a chance to put privacy fears to rest without the needfor legislation. 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose,Calif.).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.