Lawsuit Alleges Google Violates Anti-Wiretapping Law, Data-Mines Gmail Users

The plaintiffs are accusing Google of violating federal and state anti-wiretapping law by scanning millions of students' emails and building "surreptitious" profiles to target them with advertising.

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Students who use Google’s Apps for Education are accusing the company of violating the Wiretap Act, which prohibits the interception of wire, oral or electronic communications. A group of nine plaintiffs hopes to turn the case into a class action suit.

Institutions of higher education and K-12 schools throughout the world use Apps for Education 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, but that its automated processes can’t actually be turned off — even for users who choose not to receive ads.

The suit maintains that Google scanned millions of students’ email messages, allegedly building “surreptitious” profiles to target them with advertising. Since non-Gmail users who send emails to Gmail users never signed on to Google’s terms of services, they can never have given “implied consent” to scan their email.

Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told the education news outlet that student privacy is under attack and that the case “should draw the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission and state legislatures.”

Although the director of Google Apps for Education, Bram Bout, said in a statement that the app’s ads are turned off by default, student-data-privacy experts told Education Week that Google’s own court filings contradict Bout’s assertion that his employer doesn’t use data mining to target users’ with ads unless they opt-in to receive them.

The plaintiffs are asking Google to be more transparent around its data-mining practices and are seeking payouts for millions of Gmail users amounting to $100 per day for each day a user sent or received an email message using Google’s Apps for Education during a two-year period beginning in May 2011.

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