Several students and alumni from the University of California-Berkeley have filed a lawsuit against Google in federal court, alleging it illegally intercepted and scanned university emails for the purpose of advertising purposes. Google’s Gmail service is used by millions of students at colleges and universities across the nation.
The students allege that Google misled Berkeley and other universities into believing that their Gmail accounts would not be scanned for commercial uses. The academic institutions in turn assured the students and staff that it was safe to use Gmail. But it was discovered that Google was scanning and reading emails to target advertisement to students until the end of April, 2014. Soon after, Google announced that it had permanently stopped the practice of scanning emails for advertisement. The plaintiffs state that Google has acknowledged that it used information from student emails to target ads. The lawsuit is asking the company to delete all information derived from the scanned emails and to also pay damages. Under current law, the plaintiffs could collect $100 a day depending on when the law was broken or receive a lump sum of $10,000, whichever number is greater.
This lawsuit highlights what companies like Google have the potential of doing. The public has very little idea what information is being scanned by Google or other email providers. There is a growing suspicion that Google has not always been transparent about its actions as the company has rarely been held accountable for its past transgressions. In fact, this type of snooping by Google goes far beyond just looking for ads for advertisement- it could be that Google is actually acting as an intelligence agency and even working in close collaboration with other groups.
Unfortunately this is not the first time that Google has been involved in misusing student data for commercial gain.
Advocates for student privacy say that students need to be more educated about email providers and refrain from storing any personal or other sensitive material on their email boxes. So far Google has refrained from making any statements regarding the present lawsuit.
Ray Gallo, the plaintiff’s lawyer involved in the present lawsuit has used archived web pages to determine what each of the colleges and universities were saying to students about the privacy of their emails between 2010-2014. And so far his team has found that 11 schools which had stated that to the students that their emails provided by Google would not be scanned for the purposes of advertisement.
It is not known how Google plans to fight this case, but an out of court settlement is not a bad option and it would not make any dent in its profits.