Four students from the University of California at Berkeley have sued Google for allegedly scanning their Gmail emails without obtaining prior permission.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks $10,000 in damages for each student.
California law firm Gallo LLP, which is representing the UC Berkeley students in the case, said it is willing to accept other students interested in joining the case from 10 other schools, including Harvard, Yale, UC Santa Cruz, San Diego State and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
In the complaint, the students allege that between Nov. 2010 and April 2014, Google scanned and processed the content of every email sent or received by them from a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) user account.
GAFE is an application suite that Google provides free to educational institutions around the country. The suite is available for use by students, faculty and staff at universities, colleges and other educational institutions. Email accounts associated with GAFE often have addresses that reflect the university affiliation and not Google, for example firstname.lastname@example.org, the students said.
Google used the data it collected from scanning emails to create what the complaint described as “sophisticated advertising profiles,” of each user.
The complaint concedes that Google did not actually deliver any advertisements to users of its GAFE tools during the relevant period either because Google was not advertising to them or because the educational institutions were blocking ads. “But the content of Plaintiffs and all Educational Users’ emails nevertheless was extracted, analyzed and used by Google to create user profiles and otherwise to enhance Google’s marketing and advertising business interests,” the complaint noted. Those interests included serving targeted advertising to the plaintiffs via non-GAFE applications, such as Google Search.
Among the tools and processes that Google allegedly used to scan and process email sent and received by GAFE users were Content Onebox and Changeling. The purpose of using these tools was to acquire, read and interpret the content of email messages that are in transit. The tools allowed Google to collect metadata and create other derivative data from the content of the scanned email, the lawsuit noted.
The email scanning was neither necessary nor instrumental to Google’s operation of GAFE. “Instead, it was an opportunistic activity conducted to generate profit for Google’s advertising business,” the plaintiffs said in the complaint.
A Google spokesman said the company does not have any comment on the suit. He added that Google hasn’t been served with the complaint yet.
The complainants alleged that Google’s actions constituted a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the nearly three-decades-old federal statute governing email privacy. They want the court to order Google to purge all data that it collected from scanning emails belonging to GAFE users and impose damages of $100 per day for each violation or $10,000 to each plaintiff.
This is not the first time that Google has found itself in the news over its scanning of emails in GAFE. Last year, in response to concerns over the practice Google announced that it had permanently removed all ad-scanning capabilities in Gmail for education. Google claimed the move eliminated the possibility for the company to collect or use data gathered from scanned emails.
The company said it had also removed a feature in GAFE that gave administrators the option of enabling or disabling ads in the app suite. By Google’s own estimates, some 30 million students and educators currently use GAFE.