Last week Google said Gmail users have no expectation of privacy.
Part of the justification for this is a court case from 1979 stating:
“A person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”
That’s basically all e-mail, since your average user does not manage his own mail server, and send only to other accounts who manage their own servers. So any e-mail the passes to or from Gmail can be scanned by Google for targeted advertising or anything else.
But we knew this is happening so why would we be worried about it? If it’s transmitted over the internet it’s not private. And we agreed to all of these terms when we clicked the ‘I Agree’ button on the End User License Agreement. And we all read those right?
I think what bugs me most about this issue is how conversations about the law, and what’s right for the country have changed. We each have entered into dozens of hundred page contracts by using software, browsing the internet, or even activating a computer. This is a bit of a change from when we used to discuss the issues of the day in a bar.
The thing is, we all still think about life this way. Our bar may be Facebook or an actual bar, but we don’t think of life in terms of contracts we’ve signed without reading, we think about what’s right. We think about the constitution and the bill of rights, probably the last set of legal documents we actually understood.
We are all bound by decisions we’ve made without understanding them, and it feels like that’s something that ought to change. I think many of us didn’t have an expectation of privacy, at least not a conscious one. In fact if anything we’re a generation of over-sharers.
But the real extent of how much can be learned about a person just from their e-mail or what they post on Facebook is staggering. We understand that anything we write in a public space like Facebook or WordPress or even an internet forum needs to be for public consumption, but what about private notes to loved ones, or even just the many profoundly silly things we do?
I’m not sure what the alternatives are for e-mail. It’s not like we can all start sending letters, and I’m not sure what our expectations of privacy can be in the postal system anyway.
But we do need to think about these issues, and discuss them in the public square, without just saying ‘meh’. And we need to have a longer attention span. After all, technology is only getting more advanced and our next privacy challenge, Google Glass, is just around the corner.