Keep up with the news by installing RT’s extension for . Never miss a story with this clean and simple app that delivers the latest headlines to you.

 

Gmail & privacy: No, Google didn't suddenly go all evil

Rick Falkvinge is the founder of the first Pirate Party and campaigns for sensible information policy.

Published time: August 21, 2013 08:51
AFP Photo / Nicholas Kamm

Recently, reports surfaced that Gmail users allegedly didn't have a legitimate expectation to privacy. Provoking an outrage, it turned out to be far from the truth.

A scathing alarm raised by Consumer Watchdog blasted Google last week, quoting a filing from Google in which the company apparently stated that users of Gmail, its email service, shouldn't expect any right to privacy.

If true, the statement would have been hair-raising and set off some major alarm bells. But there was something that didn't ring right with this particular alarm.

I personally know a lot of people that work at Google, and they are practically net libertarians. They care deeply for privacy. Quite a few of them are also active in the Pirate Party, which has privacy as one of its fundamental pillars. I have personally presented at Google HQ in Mountain View. So my initial reaction was that there was something else at play.

If I said something that was obviously counter to my own values, I thought, then I would be hoping that people would understand I would be trying to warn them about something else entirely. So for a while, I thought this was Google's way of warning people that they had received one of the infamous US National Security Letters requiring them to hand over the private mail of everyone. After all, Google has been defending net liberty even to the point of preferring to close a Chinese office over accepting Chinese censorship, for which they even received flowers from local people despite closing offices. 

A bouquet of flowers lies on the Google logo outside the company's China head office in Beijing on March 23, 2010 after the US web giant said it would no longer filter results and was redirecting mainland Chinese users to an uncensored site in Hong Kong — effectively closing down the mainland site. (AFP Photo / Li Xin)

The motto ‘Don't Be Evil’ has been questioned and challenged over the years, and rightly so. A corporate empire does, over time, corrupt itself just like any other empire. As any organization gets money, power, and influence, it starts attracting people who desires money, power, and influence, rather than the initial entrepreneurs or activists who were in it for changing the world for the better.

So had Google gone evil overnight, laughing with echo effects at Gmail users? No. This change doesn't happen overnight - it takes a full generation, some 20-30 years, before an initial core of world-changers are replaced by people who trade their values for ambition. What had happened was that Consumer Watchdog had way over-interpreted legal language.

The filing in question said that mails forwarded by Google could not be a secret to the internet giant, as by definition of the service provided it has to process and display the mails sent and received to the users of Gmail. Thus, the alarm sounded was more one of Consumer Watchdog not understanding technology at all, and understanding that a mail server needs to process a message to display it to a human being.

I have two deeper issues with this misunderstanding. The first is that Consumer Watchdog's alarm unfortunately and ironically took attention from the real killers of net liberty and privacy when the most focus is needed on them.

The NSA revelations are horrific - it's every bit as bad as we said it could be, and much worse still. But the second consideration may be even more cause for alarm: people (in this case Consumer Watchdog) don't understand that a mail server sees the mail, and that this is the case by necessary design. They don't understand the most basic information security. 

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

By extension, they don't understand things like that when they enter their PIN code to their VISA card, they give that PIN code to the ATM manufacturer's programmer. They don't understand that when they communicate with a machine or gadget or terminal, everything they transmit is processed by computer program code, can be read by that program code, and can be exploited by the person or people who wrote that program code, and every piece of program code between them and the intended recipient.

Again by extension, if the people supposed to understand these principles actually don't, then those people do not understand the ramifications of the NSA wiretapping, or of the British GCHQ wiretapping every single byte transmitted over London on the internet.

If they don't understand how and when people are reading their secrets, they can't take countermeasures, they don't know how to protect their privacy. And perhaps most alarming of all, there is a tendency to belittle those who do protect their privacy by means of strong encryption that even the NSA can't break, mostly because the people who should understand privacy and consumer rights actually don't. 

We need to bridge this gap and we need to take encryption to the masses. For what it's worth to Consumer Watchdog, Google's mail servers can't read an encrypted mail message. Nor can anybody else but the recipient. That's worth a lot to me, and that's why I regularly encrypt all of my communications.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Comments (15)

 

Zeeman 23.08.2013 01:41

Long story short, at the same time I was using a Gmail account to test inbound email to my corporate mail server (to make sure that spam filters are not blocking emails).
Well, a few months after I opened Facebook account I logged in to Facebook to investigate their policy changes. Immediately, the page prompted me to provide lot more personal information like my religious and political affiliation etc. And then I noticed that all of the test emails that I sent via gmail to my corporate email server were now linked on my Facebook’s profile.

 

Zeeman 23.08.2013 01:41

Many years ago I opened up a Facebook account because a friend sent me a link that required me to be Facebook member. Never liked Facebook, I had a bad feeling about this enterprise from the beginning.
Since I had my suspicions about Facebook, I was very careful not to volunteer any personal information and I even used a different network that I could not be linked to when I opened the account.

 

Zeeman 23.08.2013 01:40

It cost lots of money to run a huge data center, servers, switches, data pipes, ever increasing storage arrays and all other overhead and expenses. I shall know, as I am in that line of business.
What kind of business would give you huge mailbox for free, free email, free apps and all other services unless they were bankrolled by someone with lots of money who needs the information on you (and I)?
Facebook is another perfect example of this "sell your soul" business model.

View all comments (15)
Add comment

Authorization required for adding comments

Register or

Name

Password

Show password

Register

or Register

Request a new password

Send

or Register

To complete a registration check
your Email:

OK

or Register

A password has been sent to your email address

Edit profile

X

Name

New password

Retype new password

Current password

Save

Cancel

Follow us

Follow us