updated 11:50 pm EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
Google filing made in response to suit alleging 'thought data' farming
Defending itself against a class-action suit in Judge Lucy Koh's San Jose, CA federal courtroom, Google has circuitously admitted in a court filing that users of Google services should not have any expectation of privacy. Citing a landmark court ruling from 1979, the search engine giant has reaffirmed that people who turn over information to third parties (such as Gmail or other search engines) shouldn't expect that same information to remain private.
In its filing, Google claims that "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 provider in the course of delivery. Indeed, 'a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.'"
Oddly, Google uses a telephone analogy to approximate the 1979 ruling, saying that in the original ruling, using a telephone, the user "voluntarily convey[s] numerical information to the telephone company and 'exposes' that information to its equipment in the ordinary course of business." Google calls the process of using its Gmail service similar to that of making a phone call, and as such, the user shouldn't necessarily expect privacy.
The advertising and search giant appears to omit the more obvious conclusion that while a phone company may know the number you are calling, or the post office may know where a letter has been sent, few users would expect the phone company to listen in to the conversation and make notes, or for the post office to read the letter in pursuit of better ways to market to the parties involved -- a behavior that Google has noted before makes up the core of every service they offer.
The lawsuit-initiating document that induced the Google response believes that "Google actually diverts email messages to separate devices to extract the meaning from the message. These separate devices do not deliver the message, nor do they simply spell-check, index, or highlight words. Google designed these devices to capture the authors' actual thoughts ('thought data') for Google's secret use." Presumably, this "thought data" would help Google sell better targeted advertising to users, which is what the filers take umbrage to.
Google's "revelation" should come as no surprise. As early as 2009, Google executive Eric Schmidt told a CNBC interviewer that "if you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And ... we're all subject, in the United States, to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."