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Google Sued (Again) for Scanning University Emails

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Four current and former University of California, Berkeley students are suing Google, alleging that the tech company scanned Cal students' university emails for more than four years -- all while claiming that academic emails were not processed by Google's advertising system. Google's privacy violations affected millions of college students across the U.S, according to the suit.

If that sounds familiar, it is. A similar class action lawsuit was rejected in 2014. But this time, the students think they have a viable workaround.

Google's GAFE Gaffe

Once upon a time -- say, about the time I was a college student -- most universities had their own, unique,  and often buggy email systems. You would dial up, log in, and hope that things were working.

Today, almost all college students check their email on a university-affiliated Gmail account, Bmail in the case of Berkeley. Google's Apps for Education offers free email and other applications for universities and has all but cornered the "at dot edu" market. In 2013, seven of the eight Ivies and 72 of the top 100 U.S. universities used GAFE, including U.C. Berkeley, according to Google.

But while GAFE was exploding, Google was also scanning user's emails, seeking to mine email data for advertising purposes. According to the lawsuit, it was also doing this while publicly declaring that "there is no ad-related scanning or processing" for GAFE emails with ads disabled. Universities then passed that information on to students, promising them that their email would be ad-free and privacy protected.

"In short," the complaint alleges, "Google lied to GAFE users' affiliated Educational Institutions and made public statements that concealed its true intentions and the programmatic actions of its systems and services."

Back Down This Old Road

The suit alleges that Google's email scanning violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. While the complaint does not say it's seeking class certification, the suit does mention that "numerous claims like Plaintiff's are expected to follow in an amended version of this complaint and/or in related cases."

The students are seeking statutory damages of the greater of $10,000 or $100 per day of scanning, per plaintiff.

As the complaint notes, this is a litigation strategy that's been tried before. In 2013, Google was hit with a similar class action over its scanning of GAFE users' emails. Judge Lucky Koh refused to certify the class, however, noting that the university disclosures to users "may well lead a fact finder to conclude that end users at some universities consented, while end users at other universities did not."

Here, however, the students clearly did not consent to Google's scanning, the new suit alleges. Neither did their school, U.C. Berkeley, and at least 11 others, from the University of Washington to Yale. All assured students that emails weren't scanned, based on Google's public assertions. That, the students believe, should set them apart from the earlier, failed litigation.

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