Google Lawsuit Email Wiretapping Upheld
October 2, 2013

Lawsuit Against Google Over Gmail Wiretapping Will Move Forward

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

A federal judge has refused Google’s request to throw out a lawsuit over charges the company illegally wiretapped customers and non-customers alike. US District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose decided last week to uphold a lawsuit against the company on charges that Google scans emails and uses the contents therein to fuel advertisements.

Weeks earlier, another US appeals court upheld a decision against Google and said they must be held responsible for violating wiretapping laws following their collection of data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Google moved to dismiss the Gmail lawsuit by arguing they were only adhering to normal business practices. Judge Lucy Koh disagreed with this argument and said sourcing advertisements should not be considered a common behavior when sending and receiving emails.

If Judge Koh allows this case to move to class action status, Google could end up paying huge fines to their users for scanning their emails.

Both users and non-users of Gmail have filed a lawsuit against Google for scanning their emails for specific content. This content is then used to funnel ads to the user on other Google services, such as search. The plaintiffs in the case say this scanning violates both state and federal wiretapping laws. For their part, Google does not deny scanning inboxes, but says it only does so in the same way they would look for malware or spam. When the company first tried to dismiss the suit, Google said the plaintiffs aimed to "criminalize ordinary business practices."

These scans aren’t done by humans, says Google, and are completely in line with their terms of service and privacy policies. According to a court document released in August, Google claimed Gmail users should know their emails were being scanned and that, furthermore, no email user should have any expectation their conversations won’t be read by a third party at some point.

According to federal wiretapping laws, companies are only allowed to intercept communications, such as email, if it’s absolutely necessary to conduct business. Judge Koh did not agree with Google’s claim they were only exercising regular business practices.

“In fact, Google’s alleged interception of e-mail content is primarily used to create user profiles and to provide targeted advertising — neither of which is related to the transmission of e-mails,” wrote Koh in last week’s ruling.

“Accepting Google’s theory of implied consent — that by merely sending e-mails to or receiving e-mails from a Gmail user, a non-Gmail user has consented to Google’s interception of such e-mails for any purposes — would eviscerate the rule against interception.”

Google is also fighting wiretapping charges in another case concerning their Street View cars. In 2010, the Mountain View company admitted some of their roving data-collecting vehicles had siphoned off private information from residential and unsecured Wi-Fi networks as they passed by. Originally the company said they were only collecting location data from these networks, but it was later discovered the cars were collecting emails and other personal documents without permission. Google is fighting these charges by saying the information they gathered wasn’t secured and, therefore, available to the public.