So Facebook allegedly reads your private messages. But what about Google?

So Facebook allegedly reads your private messages. But what about Google?

Summary: Facebook is being sued after third-party security researchers demonstrated that it is intercepting and scanning the content of “Private” messages. But Facebook is not the only company that does this.


Facebook is being sued over allegations that it intercepts private messages written by its users and shares the data with its advertisers.

It is financially advantageous to capitalise on personal information collected from users. Selling that data is highly lucrative according to the suit.

In the United States, data-driven marketing was reportedly worth $156B in 2012, in Europe it is even higher. A report by Boston Consulting Group estimates a total “digital identity value” of Europeans in 2011 as €315B, which is expected to reach €1 trillion by 2020.

According to the lawsuit, Facebook looks at messages containing hyperlinks, follows the link and profiles the web activity of the user. If it finds a link to a website that also has Facebook’s social plugin, Facebook registers up to two Likes for the web page via the social media plugin.

This behaviour violates the Electronic Communications Privacy act and the California Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”).

Giving permission

But you gave Facebook permission to use your data when you signed up for the account…

When users sign up for a Facebook account they effectively give carte blanche for Facebook to do what it likes with their data. Facebook’s statement of rights and responsibilities says:

“For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings:

You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License).”

Facebook reads your private messages? So does Google ZDNet
Image: Facebook

By "content" Facebook means “anything you or other users post on Facebook”. By "information" Facebook means “facts and other information about you, including actions taken by users and non-users who interact with Facebook”.

Facebook reads your private messages? So does Google ZDNet
Image: Facebook

In signing up for a Facebook account, you have effectively permitted Facebook to use any data you enter on the site for anything it wants to.

And Facebook is not the only company to do this.

Google reads your emails

When you sign up for a Gmail account you allow Google free use of anything you write to the site. Google can do basically anything it wants to do with your content. You agreed to its Terms of Service when you created the account.

This applies to other Google services such as Picassa, Google docs, YouTube or Google+. You have granted Google similar rights over that content just by using its services.

Google’s Terms of Service updated in November 2013 state:

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, … reproduce, modify, create derivative works (…. adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), …, publish, …, publicly display and distribute such content.

The rights that you grant in this licence are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.

Facebook reads your private messages? So does Google ZDNet
Image: Google

If you have had a Gmail account since April 2007 Google’s terms are clear. Section 2 says that you can accept the Terms by:

(A) clicking to accept or agree to the Terms, … for any Service; or

(B) by actually using the Services. …, you understand and agree that Google will treat your use of the Services as acceptance of the Terms from that point onwards.

Facebook reads your private messages? So does Google ZDNet
Image: Google

Google searches and ads

According to its Privacy Policy Google uses your content from “all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content – such as giving you more relevant search results and ads.”

In September a judge ruled that Google must face a suit in relation to Gmail message scanning. Google said it automatically scans emails to target advertising based on words that appear in Gmail messages but says that machines, not people, do the scanning.

Ultimately if you want to use a free service, you have to pay the costs to run that service somehow. Advertising and marketing funds the ‘free’ services we use every day.

Only you can decide if Facebook accessing your private messages is too high a price to pay.

Topics: Privacy, Social Enterprise

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  • I thought

    there was already a class action suit against Google, that or the EU Data Protection Registrars are looking into it.

    That said, what about spam filters? Or the anti-phishing and anti-malware checks in Skype when you send a URL?

    The latter are there to help you, the user.

    The other is "sharing with advertisers"? Are they sharing with advertisers or selecting ads based on content? The latter is probably purely an machine based algorithm with no human intervention.

    Still creepy and wrong, considering it is a private message, but Facebook probably aren't "reading" your messages, just the same as your employer isn't reading your emails when their spam filter filters out those dodgy messages at the perimeter.
    • Google doesn't allow reading for anyone

      the diference is that google doesn't allow to read anyone (not any living person, just Google computers) else except the NSA according to secret and fascistic law in the fascistic US
      Jiří Pavelec
      • Exactly...

        These are targeted advertising bots, nobody could read that much email but, ZDNet must continue their assault on this technology because their simple minds cannot grasp it so, they fight to keep their gravy trains active.
      • Google even targets email recipients.

        That is hyper creepy. A person does not even need a Google account, just a friend with one, for Google to target ads.
    • NSA is the worst

      and the NSA reads whenever they want according to the secret fascistic law in the USA, but this is nothing in compare to the fascistic NSA
      Jiří Pavelec
    • Google already announced users have no expectation of privacy

      If there was a Google clothing store there would be cameras in the changing rooms.
      • Actually

        What they said was more geared towards the internet and that's proving more true these days.
  • Nothing new there.

    All ISPs and mail services scan your messages.

    Either that or you get inundated by spam.

    Google and Facebook both use targeted ads based on what gets scanned. So does Microsoft free services.

    The only time you actually get free services is if you host the service yourself. Doing that would also improve your privacy as no one but yourself can then look at what your service provides/does, and can be reasonably sure that even the NSA would have problems (they would have to break into your house to look at encrypted traffic, and tap the local ISP to capture unencrypted traffic)

    I do dislike NAT because it prevents you from doing so.
    • google apologists unite

      jessepollard says it is ok because it is google and all that free software and open source bs.

      google is the problem, be really afraid of what they do with your data and who they sell it to.
      • google does not sell your personally identifiable data, read the TOS

        What's that - you say they lie? Well then microsoft sells your data too.
        • True DrWong, they don't sell your data

          they do share it with their "partners", and likely get some percentage of income from them, so they still do make money from sharing the data.

          If they didn't they wouldn't need to share it.
          • No they don't.

            You guys make these claims without evidence... Google sells logistical information but, they aren't sharing your personal information with anyone.

            Reality is, none of these big competitors share that stuff with anyone but, that doesn't stop you guys from propagating that myth!
          • if google sold your data

            They would be out of budiness as resellers would undercut google for the data.
            It is in Googles interest to PROTECT your data so they have the information advantage. They are in the business of selling targeted ads, not selling your data.
      • Misdirection concerns

        This has nothing to do with "Google". It's the design of the Internet. The very premise behind the Internet is that you are interconnecting your computer with the computers of others. It was based on an openness and a trust that might have been OK when it was being built, but it grew so quickly so fast that most of the concerns people have these days have nothing to do with "Favorite Company To Complain About This Week" and everything to do with the Internet itself. The ability to track, identify IP addresses, link IP addresses with geographical locations, etc, etc... these are all things inherent with the Internet. There is no system that exists that allows people to simply choose to connect their computers with other computers and share information, but only have that information go one way.

        These companies aren't just handing over data to the NSA. They are responding to legal requests that, if they simply rejected them, they'd be at risk of getting shut down. And that's probably 10% of the data the NSA is getting. The other 90%, the NSA is taking without needing "permission" from any company. And they were likely doing this without the companies even know they were doing so.

        So, at the end of the day, when you're complaining about Microsoft or Google or Facebook, what you're really complaining about is "The Internet" and are using a convenient corporation to be your red herring.

        If you don't like the way the Internet works, you should either get off of it or build a better one. For instance, since HTTP is stateless, things like cookies and other trackable means are necessary for authentication. So, for a hosted service like email, they're going to need you to create an account. Laws to protect minors require you to ask for things like birth date to prove you're not a minor. With enough systems in place like this, the nature of things means that if you're on the Internet, you can't be completely anonymous. And, if you want to connect to a company's machines and use their resources, you're either going to let them show you targeted ads (which means knowing something about you and sharing this information with advertisers), or you're going to pay a monthly or yearly fee.

        If you'd rather pay $10/month or $20/month for your email service (on top of your Internet access fees) and $10/month or $20/month for your news and $10/month or $20/month for your video entertainment, etc, etc, etc... there are options for that. Unfortunately, people vote with their wallets and most people would prefer to pay for their service by being shown relevant advertisements. This is just what the Internet has organically grown into. When everyone gets upset that "this is the way it is", the concern is that one day this problem will be solved by nickle and diming everyone to death like the cable companies do and the days of powerful Internet services being in the hands of the masses will be no more, and only the rich and powerful will have access to these tools.

        There are also technological differences in the way these advertising methods are handled. Facebook is actually sharing information of intent with these third-party websites in a much different way than how Gmail's ads work. Google doesn't want their advertisers to have your information because, if they had it, they wouldn't need Google's ad network and could go elsewhere. Instead, Google keeps this information to themselves and then builds algorithms and has a "trust me" attitude with advertisers. They basically say, "look how good your ads perform... pretty good, eh?" and then say you just gotta keep trusting their algorithms to keep doing a great job. In the end, it means the advertiser doesn't actually get access to this information, they just get the traffic IF and WHEN you decide to click on the ad, and even then, it's not personally identifiable.

        In Facebook's case (and in the case of the technology this article is specifically addressing), it's when the USER enters a URL that Facebook scans this and shares information with the owner of that URL. It doesn't begin with an ad and your intent to click the ad. It begins with a private piece of information you're providing and Facebook's immediate connection they make. While it's still an algorithm doing this, the third-party is getting much more information than an advertiser would be getting in the case of advertising in Gmail. So, the actual sharing (and the way the information is being shared) crosses over a completely different line than the line crossed by how Gmail handles advertising.

        Again, you may be happy with any service using ads to keep the service free of monthly or annual fees. That's fine. But, to lump what Facebook's doing into the same barrel, and then complaining about that collective barrel succeeds in doing nothing other than to fill the Internet with more random complaining about the foundation of the Internet itself. That would be like using your free speech to complain about the idea of free speech. It gets nowhere and makes no case.

        This very article is just a part of a machine of passing the buck around and to generate more traffic to this website (which also uses ads to stay "free"). Again, you either like the Internet or you think it should go away and/or be replaced by something else, but don't lump all seemingly similar discussions into the same completely inappropriate and broad category and then use arguments against the Internet itself to bash one random company. It leads nowhere, other than to help full zdnet's coffers.
      • Google doesn't sell your data

        If they did, resellers would buy it from Google and undercut Google for your data since the data is not copyrighted.
        It is in Googles interest to protect your information so that they maintain the information advantage to leverage it for targeting ads and searches which makes them money.
        The anti-google tards need to understand this.
  • Re-read the aggreement

    "For content that is covered by intellectual property rights....."

    My layman's understanding is that general chatting, such as private messages are not generally counted as intellectual property. They would then, based on the wording of the paragraph highlighted, not be included in the "content" covered by this part of the agreement.

    Is my IP understanding correct? Anly legal types who can confirm?
    • IP

      If it's not covered by IP rights, then you don't "own it" so how can you sue them?
      • IP

        Because there is an expectation that it is a private message and can not be accessed by anyone else. If terms and conditions and privacy policy stipulate that it will be accessed and treated in a certain way, and you agree to them then that is OK. But this is not spelled out in the above part of the policy. Maybe somewhere else.

        That is my understanding at least.
    • ANYTHING recorded is copyrighted.

      As such ANYTHING recorded is intellectual property.

      Sometimes yours, sometimes others...

      I put "recorded" here because that includes any images, audio snips, or text.

      It is all copyrighted intellectual property.
      • It's a little more complex then that, jesse

        If you record someone else's work, it's not copyrited.

        That's why news organizations can record a public event, but doing so does not stop someone else from recording it too and broadcasting it. They just can't use your material without your permission, but that's a little different. You own the media not what's recorded on it, unless what is on it is your own original work or works.

        So just the act of recording others works doesn't give you a copyright to what that person said.