Google Owns You. But You Already Knew That, Right?

Just over 10 years ago, Google launched Gmail, a web-based email service that would compete with Microsoft’s Hotmail. When the service launched on April 1 of 2004 (a launch date which caused some to think it was an April Fool’s joke), Gmail was in beta and one couldn’t sign up without an invitation. In the tech community, Gmail invites were a hot commodity at the time; I seem to recall offering my first born in negotiations to secure an invite from a colleague.

As soon as we became accustomed to how the service worked, we realized that using Gmail came with certain expectations with regards to our privacy. We knew full well Google was going to scan through our emails and suggest things to us based on the contents of our conversations. I’ve been using Gmail since then, and although I’m still (mostly) okay with the volume of information Google has on me, it’s downright spooky when their Terms of Service spell out in plain English just how much power they have over us.

Google’s latest Terms of Service (TOS), updated last week, pulls no punches about what we’re giving up in exchange for using their impressive lineup of free services.

I’ll highlight a juicy part for you:

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. 

Google continues:

This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). … Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Does this scare you? The focus of this story is on Google, but Google isn’t the only company whose Terms of Service explicitly state how not private our data is. Consider Facebook: how much personal information do you have on there? Even if you’re a casual user, it’s highly likely that someone can learn more about you from your Facebook profile and posts than even the best psychologist after 10 therapy sessions. Facebook’s privacy settings have always been complicated, difficult to access and ever-changing.

And just recently, a Facebook privacy bug exposed millions of users to potential identity theft hacks. Then of course there’s the recent Heartbleed Bug, which has affected a great number of sites and a great deal of our privacy.

Call me skeptical or call me a realist, but as soon as we put our information and photos on social media, email, or in the cloud, there should not be an expectation of privacy. We have to remind ourselves that even our most precious data is locked into services, clouds, and ecosystems that we essentially have no control over. Terms of Service change frequently and in many cases without warning. Even if we decide enough is enough and stop using the service, our data lives on; and in the case of Gmail, by cancelling we’d lose our email address that we’ve had for a long time.

The silver lining—if you can call it that—in Google’s story is that any future changes in Terms of Service will be featured as an “Updated” notice on Google’s homepage for both web and mobile. That’s kind of like a hitman with a conscience who chooses to tell his victims he’s going to shoot them before he goes through with it.

Really though: as soon as the Internet became mainstream we had to admit to ourselves we knew what we were getting into. Because we knew.

Didn’t we?