Email is an inherently insecure form of electronic communication, but a public interest group critical of Google is promoting a recent court brief as evidence that users should find another service.
Maryland resident Matthew Knowles alleged in June in a class action lawsuit against Google that the search giant’s scanning of messages sent to Gmail users by non-Gmail subscribers violates the Maryland Wiretap Act and akin to the National Security Agency’s scanning of email communications.
Google cited a Supreme Court decision in the case Smith v. Maryland in 1979 that found that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”
The passage was directed at non-Gmail subscribers who do not agree to Google’s terms and conditions, much in the same way that Gmail subscribers do not agree to the terms and conditions of other email services.
Consumer Watchdog, a public interest group critical of Google seized upon the statement as an admission of guilt from Google that it does not respect its users’ privacy.
“Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, said in a press release on Monday.
“People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy don’t use Gmail,” said Simpson.
Google fired back against Consumer Watchdog’s allegations, calling reports on the search giant’s email policy untrue.
“We take our users’ privacy and security very seriously. Recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue,” said Google spokesperson Samantha Smith to the Daily Caller.
“We have built industry-leading security and privacy features into Gmail — and no matter who sends an email to a Gmail user, those protections apply,” said Smith.
Google has been criticized in the past for having software that scans the contents of a users’ email inbox in order to serve customers relevant ads.
Google is not alone in its methods. Service providers like Microsoft’s Outlook scan user email for cybersecurity reasons.
Email privacy took the media spotlight following initial disclosures from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the federal government’s phone and Internet surveillance programs.
Opportunities for users to have secure communications are either few in number, or tremendously difficult to use, as the reporters who were in contact with Snowden discovered.
Secure email providers Lavabit and Silent Circle opted to shut down their services rather than cave in to government demands for user data.
Even Phil Zimmerman — the inventor of the encryption technique used to secure emails and other text-based electronic communications, PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy — recently told Forbes that he was using email less and less in favor of secure mobile messaging services.
“So e-mail is not going to go away, but if you want to send secure messages, there are more streamlined ways to do it now,” said Zimmerman.