Google sued for data-mining students' email

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Law & order, Privacy

Google apps image courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsGoogle is in hot water for scanning millions of students' email messages and allegedly building "surreptitious" profiles to target advertising at them.

According to Education Week, a "potentially explosive" lawsuit is wending its way through US federal court, now being heard in the US District Court for the Northern District of California.

In court filings, plaintiffs charge that Google data-mines Gmail users - a group that includes students who use the company's Apps for Education tool suite.

Of course it's not news that Google reads the emails in its users' inboxes. The consumer Gmail product is free and pays its way with targeted advertising. The targeting is done by building up profiles of users' interests based on the content of their email.

The situation is a little muddier when it comes to Apps for Education.

Apps for Education is used by K-12 schools and institutions of higher education throughout the world for free online applications such as email, calendar, word processing, spreadsheet and collaborative document sharing.

Google admitted to Education Week that it automatically "scans and indexes" the email of Apps for Education users even though ads are off by default.

A company spokeswoman said that Google does so in order to provide features such as virus protection, spelling checks, and Gmail's "priority inbox". She also said that Google doesn't process information stored in Google Drive, Docs, or other applications in Apps for Education.

Its automated processes can't actually be turned off, Google said, even for users who choose not to receive ads.

The company wouldn't say whether the scans are used to build user profiles, but Bram Bout, the director of Google Apps for Education, said in a statement that the education suite's ads are turned off by default: in Gmail are turned off by default for Google Apps for Education and we have no plans to change that in the future.

The thing is, Google's own court filings in the California suit contradict Bout's assertion that his employer doesn't use data mining to target ads to Apps for Education users unless they opt to receive them, according to student-data-privacy experts, Education Week reports.

Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told the education news outlet that the case is troubling:

This should draw the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, and state legislatures. ... Student privacy is under attack.

Nine plaintiffs, including two students who've used the suite, are accusing Google of violating federal and state anti-wiretapping law and hope to turn the case into a class action suit.

The plaintiffs allege that Google violated the Wiretap Act, which prohibits the interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications.

The lawsuit actually rolls up a hodgepodge of seven individual and class action cases brought against Google, including those brought against the company for scanning messages sent from non-Gmail users.

The suit maintains that, because such non-Gmail users who send emails to Gmail users never signed on to Google's terms of services, they can never have given, in Google's terms, "implied consent" to scan their email.

The plaintiffs are seeking payouts for millions of Gmail users. The financial damages would amount to $100 per day of each day of violation for every individual who sent or received an email message using Google Apps for Education during a two-year period beginning in May 2011.

The plaintiffs also want Google to be more transparent around its data-mining practices.

Image of Google apps licensed under Creative Commons.

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25 Responses to Google sued for data-mining students' email

  1. Anonymous · 565 days ago

    what like this is new ??

  2. Guy · 565 days ago

    Anyone who emails a Gmail address knows that their emails are going to get scanned. C'mon - get real.

    And what difference does it make anyway? Google isn't the NSA.

    • LuckyLuigi · 565 days ago

      NSA has direct access to Google data, no requests or anything needed, so by default Google IS the NSA.

      • Anonymous · 564 days ago

        No. Holy hell, no. The NSA may have access to Google's data, but I sincerely doubt that Google has access to all of the NSA's data. So saying "The NSA IS Google" *might* have a grain of truth to it (even though it's a pretty big exaggeration), but saying that "Google IS the NSA" is ridiculous.

    • Anonymous · 565 days ago

      You're a bright one, aren't you?

    • The diffrence is that for acadimics we don't get to choose what email service our univeristy uses. We also do a lot of research that has us sign non-disclosure agreements. Seems google is looking to steal peoples ideas.

      • If that's a problem the schools shouldn't use Gmail. It's their fault. For years if you use Gmail you should know they see what's in your email. Schools can always have their own email servers.

      • Anonymous · 564 days ago

        No, because then it would be clearly documented that you had begun research before their organization.

      • Google isn't trying to steal anything... mfw. Building an advertising profile might get them in trouble, but for a lot of things it HAS to index and scan your email. EVERY email client will do that. Scanning/indexing your email is how the search works, it's how virus scans work, spam protection, etc.

      • roxy · 564 days ago

        i'm sorry bud, but google is not actually trying to steal your thesis about how kerouac was like, a guy or whatever you have in there.

    • 2072 · 565 days ago

      It's true that I prefer my emails to be unsafe with Google than unsafe with the NSA as Google has no actual 'power' on individuals contrary to the NSA which can destroy an innocent individual's life if it choose so based on alleged 'proofs' gathered through their dubious spying techniques...

      That being said I'd prefer my emails to be just safe from other human eyes or unknown 'social algorithms'.

    • Anonymous · 564 days ago

      My school uses Gmail as the backbone or whatever. When I login to my schools email it IS gmail. Although if you emailed me you would be emailing the email address.. so you wouldn't know you're sending it to googles servers.... c'mon - get real.

    • Ian · 564 days ago

      The point is that schools require students to use Apps for Education. Everyone knows that emails are scanned, but Edu users are unique because they are legally obligated to use google services and they don't have the opprotunity to click "decline."

    • Wrap2tyt · 564 days ago

      "And what difference does it make anyway? Google isn't the NSA"... no, but they are getting rich(er).

    • Casual Friday · 303 days ago

      Just because third party doctrine is applicable in court proceedings does not automatically give that right to a corporation. It's a violation of trust and disgrace on a grand scale.

  3. Anonymous · 565 days ago

    Exactly they are worse then the NSA since the NSA protects its citizens from harm where Google does not care to protect you at all...they just want to market fromyou.

    • Anonymous · 564 days ago

      "...the NSA protects its citizens from harm..."

      How's the weather in your fantasy world?

  4. 2072 · 565 days ago

    hmmm that's an interesting problem but I perceive Google legitimacy in doing so... They HAVE to scan and analyse received emails for several reasons:
    - Spam detection
    - Virus detection
    - Search indexing (it needs to build an index of terms in order to allow searching through received and sent emails...)
    - Importance classification ('Priority Inbox' that works as the opposite of spam detection)
    - user filtering (the different automatic filters user configure themselves).

    Moreover the above reasons don't only apply to Google, ALL email providers need to scan incoming emails just to detect Virus and Spam...

  5. Jack · 565 days ago

    You have to believe NSA works directly with companies like Google...

  6. PDXTony · 564 days ago

    is this really a shock? The internet is not a guarantee of privacy. If people haven't figured that out yet they are just being naive. (never made public email on blogs. sure but its stored right?) Google tells people up front that it will scan the information and makes assessments automatically based on that info , along with that comes spell check, search functions, etc. people want free for free and that is just not reality. I trust a private company that tells me they are doing something than the current garbage thats going on with the CIA and NSA. There will always be people that fear the worst could happen, I just tend to ignore them and I am much happier

  7. Anonymous · 564 days ago

    Understand no entity or individual has the right to scan personal information period. corporations and governments are just people like you and I. There are some very outstanding people out there as well as some very unscrupulous individuals and they are at every level and all walks of life.

    Also realize it is a free service so you do have a vote, do not use the service if you feel uncomfortable with it. If your school administration is buying into it then the issue is with them not the provider. I do not particularly care for Google either but it is a free enterprise and if people would stop complaining and stand up for their rights through their actions (do not use and recommend to others not to use it), I think we would be better off. Regarding the NSA... people get the government they deserve, right?

  8. Anonymous · 564 days ago

    Any email service that features a search function scans the content of emails that are sent and received regardless of who it was sent by. Additionally the data mining and scanning functions are outlined in the commercial agreement documents that the educational institutions would of agreed to. By proxy when the student agreed to the schools services agreement for access to school computer networks they likely agreed to any agreements the school had made with the service providers. I think this lawsuit is ridiculous and to illustrate my point the students likely didn't agree to the network shaping techniques the schools ISP uses yet have probably used it to access all sorts of personal information, should they be allowed to sue them as well for violation of wire tap laws?

  9. Anonymous · 564 days ago

    Is this a news story or an advertisement for SOPHOS? I'm confused.

    • Paul Ducklin · 564 days ago

      Do you mean is this site "an advert for Sophos" because it's Sophos Naked Security, and the site's pages clearly say so?

      Not sure how the story itself might be an advert for our products, other than that it's about email, and we happen to sell a range of email security products for on-site, off-site and cloud-based use...but then, because we have a range of email security products, topics to do with email and privacy are of interest to us.

  10. Jim · 563 days ago

    EVERY email system scans the emails. It's impossible not to unless the mail is encrypted. Unless you encrypt your email, it WILL be read. Many times (once for each relay server and a couple more for good measure).

    Further, schools are using GMail for one main reason: Cost. They're saving money. When they made that choice they accepted certain consequences. So, any lawsuit should be against the school, not Google.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.