A Texas resident is alleging that Google's six-year-old Gmail service infringes his privacy by using computers to scan incoming emails in order to surround them with contextual ads.
In a complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Keith Dunbar argues that Google violates federal wiretap laws because it "intercepts all emails sent to Gmail account holders" and then "uses the information obtained from the scanning of incoming emails in order to sell and place advertisements on Gmail account holders' user screens."
Dunbar alleges that this system violates the privacy of non-Gmail users, arguing that people who haven't signed up for Gmail haven't consented to scanning of their messages.
The company also says that its scanning process "is completely automated and involves no humans." Additionally, Google says, "the ads generated by this matching process are dynamically generated each time a message is opened by the user," adding that it "does not attach particular ads to individual messages or to users' accounts."
Dozens of privacy advocates expressed concern about Gmail when it launched in 2004, but the uproar seemed to quickly fade away. Before dying down, however, more than 31 organizations sent a letter to Google protesting the "scanning of confidential email." The advocates argued that Google's plan "violates the implicit trust of an email service provider" and that the company's data retention "poses unnecessary risks of misuse." One California lawmaker even proposed legislation to ban email providers from scanning emails, but the measure never gained any traction.
This action marks the latest in a series of privacy lawsuits filed against Web companies. Google alone has faced potential class-action suits for a variety of privacy issues, including the launch of Buzz (which created social networks out of people's email contacts), the revelation that Street View cars captured data from WiFi networks, allegations that Google sends personal information of search users via referrer headers, and accusations that Google's toolbar transmitted information about some users' Web activity to Google.