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Google sued for scanning emails of non-Gmail users

Electronic Communications Privacy Act violation alleged

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A Texas man has fired a legal broadside against Gmail in a federal lawsuit that claims the Google service violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

Keith Dunbar of Bowie County, Texas, claims that emails he sent from a non-Gmail service to Gmail users were scanned by Google algorithms without his consent. The algorithms are designed to serve Gmail users targeted ads based on the content of messages they receive.

“No consent from non-Gmail account holders is given prior to Google using the content of non-Gmail account holders for the purpose of delivering targeted ads and other related information to Gmail account holders,” the complaint, filed in US District court in Texarkana, Texas, stated. “Google does not inform non-Gmail account holders that it scans the content of their emails for the purpose of delivering targeted text ads and other related information to Gmail account holders.”

The complaint is seeking class-action status so other non-Gmail users may also joint the action. It seeks damages of $100 a day for each violation or $10,000, whichever is greater, and the disgorgement of profits made by Google as a result of the Gmail scanning.

“We haven't received a formal complaint and can't comment on specifics,” a Google spokesman wrote in an email on Monday. “To be clear though, Gmail – like most webmail providers – uses automatic scanning to fight against spam and viruses. We use similar technology to show advertisements that help keep our services free.  This is how Gmail has always worked.”

Indeed, internet law expert Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, told InformationWeek that there were numerous calls to investigate Google for such behavior in 2004. “Frankly, after all the furor died down a half-decade ago, I had assumed everyone had moved on long ago,” he told the publication.

Google's Gmail privacy policy seems also to take issue with the lawsuit's claims. Among other things, it states in bold letters:

“Using Gmail does not violate the privacy of senders since no one other than the recipient is allowed to read their email messages, and no one but the recipient sees targeted ads and related information.” ®

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