Email, Big Government and the War on Privacy

Finally, I cleaned out my Gmail inbox, one of the several email accounts I own. Since I rarely login to this particular service, there was a digital pile of 782 unread messages waiting for the delete button.

Skimming through one neglected missive after another, I noticed the ever-present Google ad affixed to each. One email commented on a music video I uploaded to YouTube years ago. The attached ad offered “Free Cha Cha Lessons” at the link. Another email was from an old friend mentioning his tax refund. What do you know, Google hit me with an ad for $20 off tax preparation from my neighborhood accountant. An email from a former co-worker mentioning caffeine? “Want Fresh Roasted Coffee?” was the ad headline.

On one hand, it’s pretty amazing how Google and other ad-based Web services can marry my daily conversations with a (sometimes) appropriate sales pitch. But it’s also pretty creepy. Even if it’s only robots trolling my account, I don’t want anyone seeing details about my ill relatives, my kids’ schedules or my award-winning collection of My Little Pony fanfic. (Keep the last one on the down-low, capiche?)

This email account also draws a lot of political email — criticism of the President and Congress, annoying federal laws, even campaign strategy ideas for conservative candidates. The bad news is that Google is reading all those messages too. The even worse news is that Google’s on record as unparalleled fans of President Obama, the Democratic Party and several liberal causes.

Individual Google employees donated 20 times as much money to Obama than they gave to Romney. Obama’s tech-savvy campaign manager was personally mentored by Google’s executive chairman. As soon as the 2012 election was over, a Google VP was named to Obama’s National Science Board

It’s certainly their right to make their political voice heard. But when you factor in the more than $18 million Google spent on lobbying last year alone, the Internet behemoth also has a huge motivation to curry favor with the powers that be. In modern Washington, Big Government plus Big Business often equals Big Cronyism.

Like all companies, Google will do what they think is in their best interest. It is government’s duty to make sure that the companies comply with all applicable rules and regulations. But as I noted in a recent article, the government has already dipped into your email without a warrant or even your knowledge. In 2012, officials accessed more than 30,000 of Americans’ personal accounts with next to no oversight.

Ultimately, our protection against such invasions of privacy is the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. It is past time that our government stops conducting “unreasonable searches and seizures” of our email accounts.

And while they’re at it, they should remove the appearance of impropriety from their cozy relationships with favored business interests.

Follow Jon Gabriel on Twitter at @ExJon.