Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but: Google is probably reading your email. Like, right now. At least if you have Gmail. And, while that might sound sinister, you actually okayed it just by choosing to use the service (or so it says in the terms). The real question is, are you really bothered by this peek into your privacy? And, if it’s helping to catch dangerous criminals, is email screening such a bad thing?
The Internet got all worked up this week when Google directly helped nab a registered sex offender after he sent child pornography from deep in the heart of Texas. On one hand, it’s good to know that there’s a certain amount of surveillance keeping creeps in line — and it’s not like Google is the only company required to notify the authorities when it comes across child porn (it’s actually a law that all companies do it, and a good one). But, on the other hand, the line in the sand between private and public information does seem to be shifting an awful lot lately. We’re standing on the edge of a pretty slippery slope — or maybe we're already sliding down it.
Of course, the reason that Google monitors your mail in the first place isn’t exactly high-minded: It helps the tech giant serve you more relevant ads (we know, that itself is more than a little uncomfortable). But, it’s funny that — while the company is legally obligated to keep an eye out on child porn — it doesn't share information about someone, say, planning a bank robbery via email, with authorities. For now, anyway. As to whether not we would want them to, that’s still up for grabs.
The web ethics of the digital age, from email monitoring to native advertising (if you didn’t catch the John Oliver clip about it, stop depriving yourself now), are often mercurial, and it makes it hard to pin down the difference between what’s a public service and what’s a seriously invasive violation of personal privacy. The general consensus is that it’s pretty important to clarify the kinds of information that companies can and can’t share about your online information, and at what point your digital persona is qualified as potentially dangerous.
In this specific case, we’re left to wonder which is more important: to catch and put away a pedophile, or to maintain a precedent that says we, as Americans, are entitled to certain levels of privacy. And, it’s made more complicated by the fact that Google offers Gmail for free — which means it has to find other means of making money. (Would you pay for an email service that was stricter about your privacy?)
Of course, we're glad this guy is behind bars. But, that doesn’t mean we’re not a little on edge about the changing parameters around our own private online lives.