Yes, Gmail Users Have Some Privacy. Here’s What You Can Expect

Google is in hot water after its lawyers were caught claiming that Gmail users have “no reasonable” expectations of privacy. The short answer is that yes, Gmail users do have some expectation of privacy and there have been no major privacy policy changes in the past year. But, since the press is freaking out, let us review what kind of privacy users can–and cannot–expect.

Short Legal Background That Tells You Nothing About Your Privacy Expectations

In a class-action lawsuit, Google is seeking to dismiss charges that it illegally mines users data. The search giant cites an antiquated 1979 Supreme Court decision, Smith v. Maryland, to cover its digital behind in a technical catch-all strategy to avoid any legal culpability. The language of the decision may freak you out:

“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 emails are processed by the recipient’s [e-mail provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’

But, in practice, Google has a vested interest in respecting at least some privacy. Here’s what you can expect.

Google Robots Scan Content And Serve You Ads

If you’ve been sending out a lot of wedding invitations, there’s a good chance you’ve been seeing advertisements for event planners, dress makers, and couples therapy and–for the truly prepared–divorce lawyers. Google automatically scans the content of email to optimize its ad targeting. According to Google, no human can actually read the content of your messages.

Google Can Share Your Data Across Services, Such As Maps and Docs

Google’s new Director Of Engineering, futurist Ray Kurzweil, told me that he wants to build a search engine that knows what users want before they do. In order to give you up-to-date traffic directions on your commute, shopping recommendations, and tailored search answers, it’s helpful to know where you live, where you visit, and what you’ve searched for in the past. Unless you’re an avid Kanye West fan, the term “north west” probably refers to an actual region of the world.

So, last year, Google adopted a major change to its privacy policy that allowed cross-reference data across all of the services, from Maps to Docs.

This is the subject of the class-action lawsuit. Plaintiffs claim that this gives Google too much information and violates your privacy rights.

While Plaintiffs have not established any harm, if it freaks you out for Google to combine your Maps and Gmail searches, you should probably jump ship. Personally, I can’t figure out how this hurts me, so I’m staying with Gmail.

Google Must Comply With Government Spying Requests

We know for a fact that Google is legally required to hand over the content of emails if they receive a court order. For instance, the Feds snagged the emails of famed WikiLeaks informant, Herbert Snorrason. If you are a threat to the U.S. government and they know it, you might want to rethink your email habits.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know spy agencies around the world allegedly also scan the records and content of most major email providers. We do not know whether they can read any of this information without a court order or which agencies they can share it with. It’s all up to paranoid speculation at the moment.

No Alternatives Against Government Surveillance

If you’re freaked out about government spying, there really aren’t any alternative email providers. Last year, two of the most popular secure email services preemptively shut down their web apps, after admitting they could not keep users’ information safe from the government.

There are some more sophisticated (read: complicated) ways of encrypting email on your own, but you’ll need to coordinate with your respondents and they can’t use any major email service provider.

Short Answer: Yes, You Have Privacy (From Humans)