Students and alumni at UC Berkeley have filed a lawsuit against Google for its practices of data mining and profiling their email traffic through Google’s “Apps for Education” services which it promotes widely – including on this campus. The suit claims this is a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
Google appears to confirm the practice but asserts that while profiles are created for everyone who uses these tools, it does not target individuals for advertising based directly on the user’s information. However the company has so far been silent on how it uses these data for its other purposes, and presumably at some point will need to argue that those uses, while profitable and exploitative, are technically not a violation.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, so for users who obtain services at no direct charge from Google, it is not clear what they think is the business value to Google if not to train fairly elaborate models to recognize someone having exactly the individual’s features, and then sell use of that model to companies or government officials who want people identified. Those uses are surely good for Google, corporations and officials, but for consumers, not so much.
Google’s practices have been the open elephant in a room that few involved have an interest in acknowledging. School officials in particular have strong motivation to pay for their digital infrastructure out of their students’ liberty and pockets, and interests of those students be damned. (At UM, the message is also employee interests be damned, as we convert faculty and staff services to Google over the course of this year.)
What brings the present case forward is an assertion by the students that an earlier Google representation (that they would stop direct advertising based on the student data) was an admission that the were violating the Act in contrast to promises made at the time. Those promises are not unlike those made to students on this campus when we directed all traffic through Google servers.