An examination by the Wall Street Journal shows how Google allows commercial enterprises largely in the area of marketing to electronically scan — and sometimes have employees actually read — private email.

Recent disclosures that Google continues to allow third-party vendors to scan private emails sent through the company’s gmail system is yet another example of the imminent need for legal and legislative clarity on just how much, or little, privacy a person can reasonably expect when communicating online.

As it stands, if a person thinks a one-to-one email they send to a friend or family member isn’t accessible to a total stranger, they are uninformed as to the nature of the vast data-harvesting apparatus that fuels online marketing. The intersection of privacy rights and the digital collection of personal data is a field of law that is unsettled and still evolving — unfortunately in a direction that favors private profit over personal privacy.

In the case of Google, an examination by the Wall Street Journal shows how the company allows commercial enterprises largely in the area of marketing to electronically scan — and sometimes have employees actually read — private email. Like Facebook and others, Google has touted its commitment to protecting its patrons’ privacy, but the evidence suggests those assurances are less than sincere. In lieu of any clear legal or regulatory determinations on the question, consumers should expect that just about anything they do online is susceptible to third-party snooping.

The preeminent question is just who should be responsible for guaranteeing online privacy? Should it be left to the individual to “opt out” of online services that scan for information? If so, consumers need to be far better informed as to where and when their search queries or transmissions are being tagged and trailed. Just what obligations internet service providers and social media platforms have to provide consumers with that information — thus empowering them to act on behalf of their privacy — is a cloudy question.

At this point, there has been no defining legal decision that might lift those clouds. The big players in the online world, Google chief among them, have so far deftly avoided a confrontation in court that could result in a definitive answer. A 2013 lawsuit challenging how Google sells rights to scan gmail ended in a decision favorable to Google, without directly addressing the intricate and intrinsic questions about personal privacy boundaries. The decision hinged largely on the legal standing of the parties to bring the matter to court.

In lieu of any guidelines forged by litigation, the question arises as to the role of government in protecting online privacy. Regulators have been rightly reluctant to begin erecting an empire of rules over internet traffic. Providing online services is a business that seeks profit, and there is danger pursuing policies that would constrict digital enterprise without good reason. As for what that good reason might be, the question of what harm generally befalls a consumer whose privacy is intruded upon remains subjective.

9 comments on this story

First and foremost, consumers should be given clear and usable tools to do what they can to guard their privacy. Granting them greater transparency as to what information is used for what purposes and allowing them the latitude to choose the information that gets shared should be top priority for today's tech titans.

It’s vital that companies like Google be held accountable for the transgression of suggesting they prize privacy for their customers, while allowing access to the prying eyes of third-party profiteers.