Google Faces Pressure for Scanning Student Gmail to Mine for Ads

 
 
By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2014-05-17 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
email privacy

SafeGov.org continues to ask Google questions about its past scanning of Gmail messages that used data mining to serve up ads to Google Apps for Education users.

Opponents of Google's recent practice of scanning Gmail messages to help target advertisements to Gmail users continue to pressure the search giant on the issue.

The latest salvo comes from Jeff Gould, the president of industry group SafeGov.org, who launched an angry attack on Google in a May 15 blog post after Google described its Gmail-scanning activities in a recent blog post.

"In a surprise announcement on April 30, 2014, Google announced on its company blog that it would no longer 'collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes,'" Gould wrote in his post. "Google also noted that it would make similar changes to its Google Apps for Government products. This announcement suggests that Google has been scanning, storing and monetizing student, business and government emails for years, which raises concerns about Google's past privacy practices and their future policies."

Gould's contention is that Google's conduct in scanning the messages violated legal contracts that schools and government agencies had signed, which included stipulations that no such ad-related scanning would be conducted on their users.

Google's conduct, and it's admission in its blog post that it had been conducting the email scanning for ad-serving purposes is a "violation of trust" and caused "the risk of harm" to users, school districts and government agencies by exposing them to potential attacks by malicious third parties through the ad networks, Gould told eWEEK.  

"It is possible that you are creating risks" by performing such scans, Gould said of Google's conduct. "The whole purpose of Google data mining is to allow advertisers to send messages to prospective buyers. If bad actors got involved, it could lead to phishing and other problems. If [the scanning] wasn't happening, this [potential problem] could not happen."

Gould said he is particularly angry that Google noted in its April 30 blog post that it turns off ad-serving for Google Apps for Education users "by default," yet then goes on to state that it has now "permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education."

The two statements give a mixed message from Google and are confusing about how Google was actually dealing with Gmail messages and ad serving for education users, said Gould. "We think Google made the statement, and we think that they should do more to clarify exactly what they are going to be doing" from now into the future.

In response to Google's blog post, Gould said he and his group now want more specifics from Google about the kinds of ad scanning Google was doing, as well as information about when Google will delete the information that it had collected from its servers. The group also wants to know if Google will halt its former practice of creating profiles about its student and government Gmail users, and if the company will formally extend a "no data mining" pledge to all student and government users of Chromebooks and Android devices through their agencies and schools.

"We believe that Google needs to give complete answers to these questions and pledge to be forthright to all its customers," said Gould. "SafeGov.org will continue to work to ensure a broad public discussion around these issues, which is particularly important as more schools and government agencies around the world shift to the cloud."

SafeGov.org, which has been in existence for more than three years, is a non-profit group made up of member companies, including Microsoft, Lockheed-Martin, Juniper Networks, Hitachi Data Systems and R.R. Donnelley. SafeGov.org says it works to promote trusted and responsible cloud computing scenarios for education, government, law enforcement and other public-sector groups.

 

Google declined an eWEEK request for comment on the matter.

The issue of Gmail message scanning has been dogging Google for some time. In March 2014, a California judge ruled in Google's favor when she declined a request from prospective plaintiffs to be allowed to file a class-action suit as they go after Google for its alleged conduct. The Gmail users wanted to band together to take Google to court over its scanning practices of Gmail messages, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

The controversy in that case, however, may not be over for Google. The company previously defeated a similar bid for class-action status in a related case in San Rafael, Calif., but the plaintiffs then filed an amended version of their complaint in February 2014, according to the story.

Google continues to face government and citizen concerns over its data-privacy policies around the globe.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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