According to a recent motion filed by attorneys for Google, Gmail users should have no “reasonable expectation” that their communications are completely private. The motion, which was filed in response to a complaint against the company for violating wiretap laws, claims that the lack of privacy goes hand in hand with normal business practices. While many are outraged, Google is just confirming what everybody should be thinking: Internet privacy is a myth.
The motion specifically reads, “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.”
The motion was discovered and displayed by the group Consumer Watchdog, and now is being debated across the media. The story has been accompanied by related incidents surrounding privacy-based email sites Lavabit and Silent Circle, which both chose to shut down after concerns that they could not guarantee the privacy of their users. Lavabit was used by Edward Snowden before his escape to Russia, and the site has declined to explain the exact nature of why it shut down. Yet none of what Google has to say should be surprising.
As Google argues, its services are in fact free to users. Thus, nobody is actually paying for a service that is totally private. Additionally Google claims that its Terms of Service agreement, easily accessible, specifies that automated scanning of email communication occurred. The automated scanning had been the focal point of the plaintiff’s case.
Regardless of the Terms of Service, which the average user is likely not inclined to read, it shouldn't be natural to trust corporations to respect your privacy. Yet, prior to when the NSA's PRISM program broke, people would send emails assuming that they would be completely private. But let's be real — Google is a huge corporation. As far as trust in corporations and business goes, we should be thinking twice before assuming no one is watching us.
The problem is, Google's case isn’t a rare one. What’s left of Internet privacy has been diminished. The shutdown of Lavabit and Silent Circle have only emphasized this. One could flee the email giant, but other options are increasingly limited. There’s also something to say for the convenience of Google services. This all-too-open form of internet communication is our status quo. It is our reality.
You don’t have to like it. I certainly don’t. You probably shouldn’t either. But you really shouldn’t trust anything you do online to be completely private, especially on a free service like Gmail. It’s time for the users to get smart about expectations for services like these. That expectation should not be one of privacy.