Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Google continues to get whacked over Gmail privacy concerns

The Gmail controversy rages on.

In this article Chris Hoofnagle, the associate director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center says, "[w]e don't see this as any different than letting a company listen in on your phone conversations and letting the Postal Service open your mail." Ok, I know that it is Hoofnagle's job to be a privacy hawk, but this is another analogy that just isn't helpful (see prior post on another unhelpful Gmail analogy). A computer inserting ads onto the side of an email based on its content is nothing like a human being doing so. The computer has no judgmental reaction to the content, cannot use the content for any purpose other than inserting ads in the email, and can't remember it. Which leads us to the real problem...maybe it does remember it:

"Some parts of Gmail even could be illegal, said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a watchdog group in London. Google's current Gmail policy advises potential users that residual copies of e-mail may remain on our systems, even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account. Vast data collection like that appears to be a blatant violation of communication protections in United Kingdom and possibly elsewhere in Europe, Davies said." Google keeping records of all email, even after the user deletes it, is a problem. As I said before, they will need to explain what this is all about. In the meantime...

"Privacy International already has filed a complaint against Gmail with United Kingdom regulators." That was quick! "If millions of people have their communication history kept on Google computers, Davies said, then that storehouse becomes a very valuable source of information for a range of unintended consequences." I am no conspiracy theorist, but this does concern me as well. As Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology puts it, Gmail has a "definite creepiness factor." He has also pointed out (as I noted below) that there is a "lower threshold for allowing law enforcement to obtain e-mails that have been stored for more than 180 days." Google's policy may expose more of a person's email to any subpoena seeking to obtain their old email.

I think there has been an overreaction to the Gmail privacy issue, however, I am still waiting for Google to explain themselves regarding the archiving of erased email.


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