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Lawsuit alleges privacy rights violation by U. email service provider

Four students at the University of California, Berkeley, filed complaints against Google Inc. for privacy violations relating to Google’s Apps for Education program,which provides Gmail and other Google products to educational institutions, on Jan. 27 to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

The University, along with other institutions such as University of California, Berkeley, utilizes Google’s Apps for Education. Each of the institutions administer and supervise these accounts.

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University Vice President for Information and Chief Information Officer Jay Dominick said that although the University as an institution is not participating in the case, it is up to the individual students if they want to participate.

The four plaintiffs in the case, Ryan Corley, William Dormann, Shannon Mehaffey, and Teddey Xiao, alleged that Google illegally intercepted and read their university emails without their consent and then used information found in those emails to create tailored advertising profiles.

Corley, Dormann, Mehaffey and Xiao declined to comment.

Representatives from Google did not respond to a request for comment.

“Google’s unauthorized interception of Plaintiffs’ email in that manner and for that purpose violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act” the complaint reads, “until April 30, 2014, Google denied that it was scanning Google Apps for Education users’ emails for advertising and misled Educational Institutions into believing their email was private.”

Among other demands, the plaintiffs sought an order requiring Google to purge information gathered from their messages and statutory damages of greater than $100 per day of violation.

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According to Ray Gallo, Senior Partner at Gallo LLP and the legal representative for the plaintiffs, it is important to note that the suit only impacts students at universities whose privacy statements did not include a statement from Google notifying users that Google planned to use their emails for advertising purposes.

While Gallo noted he is unsure on whether University’s privacy statement qualifies University students as plaintiffs, he explained that certain institutions such as Harvard University, Yale University, have privacy statements that qualifies students as plaintiffs for this lawsuit.

These universities told their users that the accounts would be private and not be scanned by Google, according to Gallo.

For example, Yale’s privacy statement says that Google asserts Yale will retain possession of data from EliApps, Yale’s student-account system similar to the University's TigerHub. The statement also notes that ‘Data mining’ and vending ads are not part of the service package for the accounts, thus making their students qualified as plaintiffs in case such practices happen.

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While the University's Information Technology Policy does not contain an explicit privacy statement, the University's terms of service for Google Apps for Educationspecifies that all users are expected to comply with the Google Terms of Service, which provides legal basis for Google to read and collect users’ emails and use information for advertising and other commercial purposes.

Gallo explained that Google only stopped scanning email accounts in April of 2014. Headded thatin 2014, he filed two class action lawsuits, one dealing with Gmail and one dealing with the Google Apps for Education, against Google for the same violation of privacy rights, both of which were dismissed byFederal District Judge Lucy Koh because there were plaintiffs in both of the cases who might have consented to Google’s interception of their accounts.

After the original cases were dismissed, Gallo said he set out to find plaintiffs who did fit the criteria necessary to file a class action suit. He created a promotional message that encouraged students with Google Apps for Education accounts between November 2010 and April 2014 to visit his website to see if they qualified to join the suit.Corley, Dormann, Mehaffey and Xiaoreached out to him agreeing to be a part of the lawsuitsafter seeing an ad Gallo had created, he added.

“This is our chance to do something so that Google has to answer for damages to somebody,” Gallo said. “The issue is whether Google has to pay anything for having read people’s emails without authorization.”

 

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