Should we care if Google reads our emails?
Opinion: Google automatically parses your private emails to better target you with ads. This act is the subject of a US class action
But they aren’t free. The price is your data, handed over to these services, which then essentially sell you – or rather the “you” inferred from your personal details, interests, email topics, Facebook “likes”, tweet contents and so forth – to advertisers. As the saying goes, on the internet if there is no product, you are the product. A key issue is whether people’s opt-in consent is needed for these activities and, more significantly, whether online service-users truly understand the scope of this giveaway and the longer term privacy implications.
Google’s generally unspoken deal is that they give us loads of free, often very cool, services – many of which have become central to our online lives – and we feed them data. Reams and reams of it.
Our search contents. Our email contents. Our images. Our calendar – and hence, diary – information. Our taste in books. Google already cross-shares some of your data across its varied services. When you sign into your Gmail account (assuming you are one of the 425 million users), Google will automatically sign you into some other services, such as Calendar, word processor Docs, search, Google, your YouTube account.
Finely tuned market
In return, Google gives us more finely targeted ads (that’s why, soon after you send an email discussing skiing, you might find yourself viewing lots of ads about ski equipment, ski holidays and the like).
Google is due to launch a service which will cross-feed this and potentially even more data – such as location data from your Android phone – to offer, and even anticipate, personalised search results and suggestions for travel, dining, purchases and other activities.
So what is the issue here? Some – including those Google lawyers – argue that there is no issue. That all of this is not just a mutually beneficial exchange, providing users with very handy services, but is actually beginning to move us into a new era of amazingly helpful, personalised computer interactions.
On the other side, the US lawsuit quotes Google executive chairman and former chief executive Eric Schmidt: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”, and argues that reading emails, even in an automated way, is crossing “the creepy line”.
The real issue is, who defines “the creepy line”? Right now, it is big companies and national security agencies. It’s time for ordinary citizens to engage in a broad and intensive privacy debate, and wrest back that definition for themselves.