Google updated its terms of service on Monday to inform users that it analyses their personal data, including emails, in order to provide them with tailored ads and customised search results among other features. A new paragraph in the revision explains more explicitly the manner in which the company's software scans users' emails when they are sent, received and stored on Google's servers.
"Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored."
The practice has been controversial, with privacy groups describing it as an invasion into user privacy. Also this nosing around has been at the heart of some litigation. Many think that the automatic scanning of email represents an illegal interception of one's electronic communications without having given consent. Despite the general public feelings, Google fought back and won a major lawsuit last month when US District Court Judge Lucy Koh (of AppSung fame) rejected a request to combine several cases where Google was accused of violating privacy and wire-tapping laws under a single class action lawsuit. Koh wrote that as user consent was central to the lawsuit, cases must therefore be litigated on an individual rather than class action basis.
Koh did however point out that Google's terms of service did not notify the plaintiffs "that Google would intercept users' emails for the purposes of creating user profiles or providing targeted advertising." This is perhaps behind Google's decision to update, revise and clarify its terms of service.
Furthermore, we also saw competitor Microsoft's "Don't Get Scroogled by Gmail" campaign exploiting the controversy to target Gmail as it flags its Outlook.com email service as being superior, since it does not go through email looking for keywords to target users with paid advertisements.
Google spokesman Matt Kallman said in a statement that the changes "will give people even greater clarity and are based on feedback we've received over the last few months."