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8/14/2013
05:15 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem

Is there really informed consent among Gmail users? The real privacy issue is we're all getting by on a lot of trust.

Microsoft computers do the same thing, as the company acknowledges in its Terms of Service: "[W]e may occasionally use automated means to isolate information from email, chats, or photos in order to help detect and protect against spam and malware, or to improve the services with new features that makes them easier to use."

The only difference is that Google is using automated means to deliver relevant ads in addition to ensuring security and quality of service.

Eric Goldman, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, in an email acknowledged that Google's attorneys could have worded things a bit more delicately but stressed that Gmail privacy claims have gone nowhere for years.

"Unfortunately, Google's poor choice of words gives the legions of Google-haters another chance to take another whack at it," he wrote. "I find the whole fracas baffling given that we have nearly a decade of experience using Gmail. The scare-mongering was a lot more persuasive in 2004, when the future was unknown, than 2013, when we basically know how the story turned out, i.e., Gmail is a great service and no one has suffered any harms due to Gmail's automated email processing."

Yet, Simpson's objection to Gmail has a kernel of merit: He takes issue with the notion that there's really informed consent among Gmail users and those sending email to Gmail users. Fair enough: click-through agreements suck. Online disclosure and contractual terms could be much more clear.

But ignorance of the law is no excuse and ignorance about the realities of online life shouldn't be an excuse either, as long as there's no meaningful deception going on. Terms of service agreements, contracts, computer technology and the law are all hard to understand. If we were really to insist on informed consent, there would be no Internet because almost no one bothers to read click-through contracts and few among those who do really understand what's going on at a technical level. We're all getting by on a lot of trust.

The Internet is a surveillance state. If that bothers you, if Gmail's automated scanning is too much of a privacy violation, do something about it. Brush up on PGP and start encrypting. Push for stronger data protection rules. Block ads. Communicate by tin-foil-clad carrier pigeons. Conduct your social networking in person. Vote for regime change. But don't say that you didn't know.

 

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 3:53:03 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
"If we were really to insist on informed consent,
there would be no Internet because almost no one bothers to read
click-through contracts..." The don't-read-the-agreement problem isn't easy to solve. Service agreements speak in legalese most users don't understand. So at the moment, you're right. We are getting by on a lot of trust. But some users have hit a wall, refusing, for instance, to add any new Facebook apps. Why agree to give an app permissions you don't 100% understand?
OtherJimDonahue
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OtherJimDonahue,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 4:27:57 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
Laurianne: "But some users have hit a wall, refusing, for instance, to add any new Facebook apps."

Oh, definitely. Whenever I click on invitations to these things, I'm appalled at how broad the implications are.

One of my friends was surprised recently when I commented on a word he had played in Words With Friends. He had no idea the app was posting his plays for all his friends to see. That's just crazy.

Jim Donahue
Managing Editor
InformationWeek
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 4:39:42 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
Simpson's sole purpose in life is to find fault with Google. While I don't like Google's unfortunate phrasing, no one at Google is "reading" your emails. Just as no one at the NSA is reading your emails or listening to your phone conversations. They're both looking for patterns to act on -- in Google's case, for targeted advertising; in the NSA's case, to root out terrorists more efficiently. As columnist Coverlet Meshing wrote in a recent piece on the NSA backlash: Get over yourself. "The people working at the NSA don't care about your dumb life or your stupid fetish. They didn't take government pay so they could read your banal emails or listen to your limp conversations. They care about stopping bad guys. And quickly."
http://www.informationweek.com...

The big difference: You can drop Google as an email provider if you don't like what it's doing. You can't drop the NSA.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 5:26:40 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
Google could have been much more tactful in its motion. "A person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties." It's like they are trying to piss us off. But the thing is I'm deeply entrenched in Gmail and changing email providers is a big hassle. Am I really going to switch to Yahoo or Outlook.com because a Google computer scans my emails for keywords to target ads? Microsoft basically does the same thing, though for different reasons: to allegedly protect us and discover ways to improve the service. So if automated scanning bothers you, switching won't make you feel more secure. If you feel you're being violated, you can always work to safeguard yourself as Tom points out in the last paragraph.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Ninja
8/15/2013 | 6:38:04 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
You shouldn't. We need better ways to convey privacy information. Some of the systems that employ graphics to do so are, I think, on the right track. The privacy policy generation service Iubenda.com is an example of an effective way to convey data usage.
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 7:15:09 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
It's easy for writers to say that people shouldn't say that they didn't know. But in reality, people don't know. These companies promote their services as safe and secure; yes, even Google. But in reality, they aren't just using computers to look for spam and malice in software. They are using the info for their own purposes.

We should remember what then CEO of Google, Eric Schmitt said a while ago, a statement duplicated by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer just a short time ago:

"Google (Microsoft) will know more about you than you know about yourself, and will make decisions for you before you know you want to make them."

This is rather scary. When Schmitt made that statement, it was called "creepy". It's more than that.

People say that they worry more about government that these companies, but that's wrong. Government will never have the ability to capture the amou t and kind of information about us that these search engines are now routinely gathering. Ditto for mail services.

The reason why this is so scary is because the government doesn't need to do this as these companies are doing it for them. So sure, perhaps they don't give the government all the info on a regular basis, but it's there to be gotten.

And who's to say that the companies themselves won't use it in ways we won't like? There isn't. In addition, it's not unknown for employees to have access to this info, and to exploit it for their own benefit.

It's the height of na+vet+ to think that all of this is easily understood by most people, and to expect them to campaign against it. This really must be regulated. I know that most people in business hate the thought, but we see what happens when it's not done. One thing that comes of it is Enron. I hope that hasn't been forgotten.
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 7:24:05 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
The problem is that we don't know what Google is doing. A major example of that is their use of Street View. They captured a lot of info from people's networks, including passwords, etc., when it was found out, first they denied it. Then, when they couldn't do that any more, they claimed it was a mistake. Then they blamed one engineer.

But when the German government, and others demanded they erase all of the infor they collected, they fought that. Why would they fight deleting information gathered by mistake? That makes no sense.

But then we find out that the software used to gather that information was developed by Google, and even patented by them. The software was designed to do exactly what it was used for. Odd mistake, don't you think?

In addition, what was equipment of that nature even doing in a vehicle designed to *just* take photos of streets? Makes no sense, right?

This is just an example of why we need to take revelations like this seriously.
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 7:30:01 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
Any company that has advertising as a big part of their sales and profits can't be trusted with our information. These companies only come out with services so that they can get us to give our information over to them.

We should know this as being the case with Google in particular, because despite the rather dumb purchase of Motorola at such an outrageously priced buyout, 96% of their sales and profits still come from advertising, and likely will continue to do so. In fact, the only purpose to their Chrome OS laptops is to lock people into their online services where you're stuck with giving all of your info all of the time. We even read that what you type into their online productivity apps are passed through their computers for data mining. Good luck if you use them for business purposes!
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 8:11:12 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
Even though I know what Google does with my e-mail and I am not surprised by the "big reveal", for Google to stand behind what they call legal precedence and the wording they used to defend their actions is, beyond doubt, ridiculous.

If I give a letter to the post office, I expect it to remain sealed during their "processing". While mailing a letter to a business comes with the plausibility that it will be opened before it gets to the final recipient, that sure as hell doesn't give the post office a blank check. In my mind, Google is an electronic post office and their defense is ridiculous and completely without merit.

TO GOOGLE

Just admit that you do what you told us you were going to do long ago. We might have clicked through the agreement but here is your chance to make sure we understand your intent. How easy is that rather than having one of your $1K/hour lawyers craft an opinion piece about postal mail precedence?

Now go one step further and eliminate all the griping. For a fee, provide a private service! Granted, e-mails will still be exchanged in clear text, sniffed by the NSA, possibly ISPs and perhaps WiFi hackers but YOU will be drawing a clear distinction between the privacy expectations of "free" e-mail and something else. This eliminates all the hubbub and leaves naysayers no ground on which to stand.

Wouldn't this be much better than taking a 90s Microsoft approach to giving your customers a golden shower?
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2013 | 8:17:25 PM
re: Gmail Is Not A Privacy Problem
Google's "just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague" metaphor was absolutely ham-handed. Or to use another food metaphor, comparing apples to oranges.
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