Do you have an expectation of privacy when using email?

Gmail en OME
Photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via Flickr

People who use Gmail and other free email systems have no reasonable expectation of privacy, according to papers filed in a U.S. district court by lawyers for Google. The filing was made in June, when Google moved to dismiss a case accusing it of breaking federal and state laws by scanning users’ emails to help target its advertising campaigns, writes NPR blogger Bill Chappell.

In making its case, Google compared sending an email to other types of communications where privacy cannot be expected:

“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS provider in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’ Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743-44 (1979).”

The company’s attorneys said those same expectations would also hold for any non-Gmail users who send a message to a Gmail address. And it says that anyone sending an email is essentially giving their implied consent to automatic processing.

Today’s Question: Do you have an expectation of privacy when using email?

  • Gary F


    One of my goals this year was to start paying for my personal email service. There are many firms now doing this for a fee. Eliminate G-mails and Hotmail by the end of the year.

    Hey folks, what search engine do you use? Is there a reliable search engine to use other than Bing/Google/Yahoo?

  • reggie

    Much as I think Google has become the evil they started out not to be, I have to agree with the company’s legal argument. If you use “free” services, there is no such thing as digital privacy. We pay for them with our personal information, one way or another.

  • paulj

    Yes, I expect the laws to change to keep the creepy creepers to keep out of my business as much as is reasonably possible.

  • Rich in Duluth

    If I want privacy and security, I use the U.S. Postal Service to communicate.

    It’s easy to see that Google scans your emails. Just look at the ads that follow you all over the internet. They’re based on the things you talk about in your emails and your searches.

    I use DuckDuckGo as my search engine. They claim not to “bubble” or track your searches.

    • Gary F

      July 3 2013 NY TImes article on postal service privacy.

      Their hands are dirty too.

      • Rich in Duluth

        Well, thank you. I didn’t know the USPS was doing this, but it doesn’t surprise me.

        This tracking does say a lot about who and how often we communicate with others, but it does not track or save the content of those communications as Google does.

        While government snooping can result in my being prosecuted if I break the law, I find Big Business snooping a greater threat to me, personally. Business has no limits on what they can do with the data they collect on a person. It can be used or sold, without liability or confirmation of accuracy, to anyone for any reason.

  • Pearly

    After the Snowden leak I dont expect privacy any anywhere electronics are used. As for the postal service…. who do you think is running that money pit?

  • Sue de Nim

    Anyone who expects privacy with Gmail is deluded. I fully expect that Google is mining my data for economically exploitable information. The 4th Amendment only protects against government intrusion into private affairs and does not apply to Big Brother Business.

    • Gayle

      By my routine web browsing and on-line shopping for luxury items, I have been offered travel discounts and stay and play vacations. I also get lots of interesting email offers from Amazon and other on-line shopping malls.

  • Gary F

    How many cookies are dropped and followed because we post on this forum?

    Michael, is MPR/Discus following our moves?

  • Matthew

    I expect that no human is looking at my email. I know that the computer algorithms are searching it for selling ads at me; that’s why Gmail is free to me after all.

  • Jim G

    When I write emails today I try to include only information that I know is already available on-line. Expecting privacy through electronic communications has been a thing of the past since World War II and the allied decryption of the German enigma machines, and the Japanese War codes. If the pay-off is big enough, and now it unfortunately is, data miners will find ways to strip it from its originators, using whatever means available.

  • Erik

    How can you honestly have this conversation without talking about Lavabit?

    • James

      The NSA can’t accept that any communication could be free from its prying eyes, so it forced Lavabit and Silent Circle to shut down

    • david

      Wow scary.

  • david

    Nothing electronic can be expected to be confidential. Even if the recipient’s or sender’s service said they wouldn’t snoop, someone in between or a bored or unscrupulous system admin still could.

  • Ralfy

    We have allowed the age of Corporate Stasi to control, monitor and profit from not only our communications, but virtually all of our data/information. Just as we get the government we deserve, we also get the corporate masters we support.

  • Paradoxreflections

    1. Google is not the only one that “collects” information from your emails. If you bothered to read the privacy statements of any of the other email services you use they will all probably say about the same thing.
    2. The first lesson I ever learned when dealing with computers and the internet (as many of you probably have as well) is that NOTHING you submit over the internet (email included) is private.
    3. If you don’t like how Gmail or Yahoo or Bing does business, quit your whining and STOP using their services. These are services are provided to you free of charge, so if you are sending personal/confidential material through your email maybe you should stop and send it through a courier service instead.

  • James

    An IT colleague told me that the new version of Microsoft Office (after 2013) will not allow a choice of actually purchasing and only using it on your own machine. It will be completely web-based. I have to assume this will make it much easier to search everyone’s documents for the NSA.