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You’ve Got Mail; I’ve Already Read It… It’s not Important.

March 9, 2010

We all have the expectation that when we spend our 44 cents and mail a letter, the contents are a private matter between us and the person to whom we address the letter.  We take the right so seriously that it is a federal crime to open or even interfere with another person’s mail.  How would you feel about the post office opening your letters, making a copy and archiving it, analyzing the contents, and only then sending your letter on its way?  We would have our pitchforks in hand ready to make a pincushion out of the official responsible.

Technology is a wonderful thing but simply having the ability to do something does not make it a good idea.  Yet, Google’s Gmail service does exactly what’s described above.  Are they violating federal law?  No, they’ve covered themselves with a EULA.  EULA stands for End User Licensing Agreement, it is the page filled with all sorts of legal double talk you must agree to while installing software like Gmail.  To read one of the many pages of Google’s EULA, click here.  When you agree to use Gmail, you grant Google permission to use the contents of your email for their own purposes.  They analyze your email’s content and prompt you on things like referencing an attachment but not having one.  In that case, when you try to send it, a warning pops up informing you that nothing is attached.  That seems reasonable enough, but that same analysis targets advertizing to you as well.  Think of it as personalized junk mail.

This is where things get a bit gray with the EULA.  It does give Google the legal right, but it is buried in a document hardly anyone reads, as they are commonplace.  A fact Google is counting on, to say the least.  Moreover, it is far down the document and hidden among standard items that protect Google from lawsuits.  Google, being a free service, is entitled to seek profit where they can and this is the path they picked to do that.  The only problem with Google is the stealth with which they undertake the process.  It would be nice if Google stated its intentions in an open fashion so users understand exactly what they give up to receive “free” email service.

We always have the option to subscribe to a service that does not analyze email, but how do we know what any Internet Service Provider (ISP) does with our email?  We expect the same level of privacy with an electronic letter that a printed one enjoys.  Currently, that privacy simply does not exist. Say you send an email to your Aunt that lives in another country, you have a copy of the email you created, your ISP keep a copy, any server that the email is transferred through has one, the routing server that sends it overseas has a copy, your aunt’s ISP keeps one, and of course your aunt does too.  Any one of these copies may be read and copied and distributed without your knowledge.

ISPs claim the need to make copies for “backup” purposes, in case of a problem.  Sometimes they are required by law to keep copies for a period of time.  While complying with the law is hard to argue, the backup claim is tenuous at best as local copies exist.  The real problem comes with the length of time emails are archived in various backups around the world; there is no limit.

When you use the US Postal Service to mail a letter, no copy is made unless a judge grants law enforcement the right to intercept the letter.  It seems the same logic needs to apply to email and any agent that delivers mail in any form.  In the case of Google, if you grant permission, that is another matter.  Still, Google should live up to its unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” by pointing out their business practices.

For now, understand your emails do not enjoy the same privacy protection as a traditionally mailed letter.  Our rights have not caught up to the digital revolution.  Everyone my age remembers the Watergate break-in back in 1972 that lead to President Nixon’s resignation.  Another aspect that is forgotten, he used the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without a warrant of any kind and for purely political reasons.  Rather than learn proper oversight from that event, with the Patriot Act we allow the FBI to use something called a National Security Letter to seek information, like emails, without a warrant as long as it involves matters of a time-sensitive nature, as a looming terrorist attack, where going through a court is not practical.  The Department of Justice has documented over 1,000 cases of abuse of this system(Various Sources: Washington Post; CNN; New York Times).  We don’t know for what purpose the FBI abuses occurred, but it is obvious that allowing them the ability means they will use it.

Again, email does not enjoy the same protection as a mailed letter.  We only have the rights we can protect; for now, we cannot protect email from interception and being read.  In other words, no email is private, no matter what someone may tell you.  Keep that in mind next time you compose an email and press the send button!

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