Berkeley Students Sue Google Over E-mail Data Privacy

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Four students at the University of California, Berkeley have filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the California-based tech company was scanning their emails without their consent in an attempt to find advertising data.

The UC students decided to sue after finding out that the Google Apps for Education service that had been given to them by their school was scanning their emails for advertising purposes.

Despite claims made by Google that it had "permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education" in an April 2014 blog post, the students maintain that the company had in fact been collecting such information from students since at least 2010. The lawsuit stated that disclosures from Berkeley administrators had promised the students their emails would be private. "None of these disclosures notified him or her of Google's interception or content scanning for Commercial Purposes. Many Plaintiffs received disclosures that assured them there would be no such scanning."

Internet Law professor Chris Hoofnagle had questioned the free Google Apps for Education service when it was first offered to the school, saying he had specifically asked about data scanning. "They always responded, ‘There is no advertising.' Their response was kind of a red herring," Hoofnagle said. "We were asking whether Google was deriving knowledge from our communications," reports Tom Ciccotta for Breitbart.

While the Google Apps for Education website states that the services do not in fact collect or use student data in order to make ad profiles or for advertising purposes, it does say that scanning in Gmail may occur in order to help improve customer experience, "like many email providers."

Federal laws require email providers to give disclosure to users before they are allowed to scan their emails. Over 800 students have filed separate individual claims against Google since the lawsuit was filed, claiming the company had violated their right to privacy in their email inboxes. Each student is asking for $10,000 from the company.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh is now asking that each student file separately in an effort to allow the court to college 710 individual $400 filing fees, bringing the future case into a state of uncertainty.

Lawyer Ray Gallo, who is representing the students, believes Google will file a request asking the 710 claims to be filed individually, writes Ethan Baron for The Mercury News. Gallo went on to say that in a case like this, which he referred to as a mass case, the plaintiffs can bring their claims together in order to get a lawyer to agree to take it on. He added that if the cases were to be filed individually, no lawyer would agree to take it.

The suit filed by 710 students claims the tech company maintained that it had not been scanning students' emails for advertising purposes until April 2015, and had also lied to schools, telling them the emails were private. The lawsuit went on to say that on a privacy page for Apps for Education, which was online between June 2011 and September 2012, had said the apps were "completely ad-free — which means your school's content is not processed by Google's advertising systems."

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