Companies that use Gmail abroad break the law because PATRIOT makes it possible for US spooks to spy on Google

Google's email and collaboration tools are facing legal problems outside of the USA, thanks to the USA Patriot Act spying bill. Google offers universities, hospitals and companies Gmail, calendar and document collaboration tools, but all the material hosted on Google's servers can be legally spied upon by the US government under the loosest of controls, thanks to the USA Patriot Act.

But many countries' laws impose a duty of care upon companies to protect their customers' or stakeholders' information from interception. By using Gmail and related services, these companies arguably break their countries' privacy laws, because they can't be sure that their customers' info isn't being slurped up by the US government's Soviet-style information hoover.

At Lakehead, the deal with Google sparked a backlash. "The [university] did this on the cheap. By getting this free from Google, they gave away our rights," said Tom Puk, past president of Lakehead's faculty association, which filed a grievance against Lakehead administration that's still in arbitration.

Professors say the Google deal broke terms of their collective agreement that guarantees members the right to private communications. Mr. Puk says teachers want an in-house system that doesn't let third parties see their e-mails.

Some other organizations are banning Google's innovative tools outright to avoid the prospect of U.S. spooks combing through their data. Security experts say many firms are only just starting to realize the risks they assume by embracing Web-based collaborative tools hosted by a U.S. company, a problem even more acute in Canada where federal privacy rules are at odds with U.S. security measures.

Link (via /.)


  1. I don’t really see why Google is the whipping boy here apart from the fact that the media likes a big juicy name to throw into stories.

    This problem applies to all data being hosted by any American company, or indeed passing through backbones located in the US, in other words pretty much a large percentage of all internet traffic.

  2. #1 – Agreed. Same goes for all those online backup sites. Back up your photo collection, which includes your 3 year old daughter naked and playing with a rubber duck and bubbles in the bath, and you’ll be put away the next time you step out of a plane in the US.

  3. Oh shit. There was I, thinking of sacking my yahoo mail account (for being slow and lame) in favour of gmail, and now I see that I should have neither. Can’t major web compaies that are essentially transnational set themselves up somewhere like Sealand, that doesn’t have ludicrous US-style information laws?

  4. Padster, they could. But generally Americans feel pretty safe setting up shop in their own country. The Google campus sounds like a great place to work, actually. If Google was in Great Britian, or France or Canada…All those governement’s would tap into the data pile as soon as they needed to, and they would make sure the law backed them up.

  5. Jeff,

    At least in Great Britain, France and Canada they would have to work within the law, and if that wasn’t possible they’d have to work pretty hard to change it. In the US, at the moment, all the government has to do to be able to tap major backbones is to ask nicely.

    Of course a government can do pretty much what it wants to do, if it is determined to do it. That’s why there are checks and balances put into place.

    What makes the US case special right now is that the ones put into place there are eroding at an alarming rate.

  6. Tesseract, emergency powers that can allow their intelligence departments/organizations to get whatever they want. If terrorism in Britian becomes a bigger problem, perhaps more of their rights will be compromised. I’m sure I’m pointing out an obvious fact when I say that people don’t miss their rights until they’ve lost them. In which case we can have lots of fun winning them back. We wouldn’t be Americans if we hadn’t lost what few rights we had and protested loudly. Some times people just have to get rightiously pissed off before they’ll fight back. I’m ready to fight back now. Come and get me Evil Empire.

    I’m not worried.

  7. I’ll note that when the Bush administration demanded that search engines hand over their logs for data mining, Google was the only one who said no, go get a warrant. MSN, AOL, and Yahoo all handed over everything the government asks for.

    So I’d actually trust Google with my stuff. Of course, if they get served with a warrant, or if their campus gets invaded by black-ops guys with lots of guns, all bets are off. But what other company can say they’d act differently in those situations?

  8. Digilante – um, no. Assumptions like that are why a lot of efforts to challenge this kind of stuff aren’t taken seriously.

  9. Regarding terrorism being an issue in UK, read the headlines. Actual attacks here outnumber the number occurring in the U.S. There’s been more eroding of rights regarding how long people can be detained here, but I’d still say I’m more concerned with Homeland Security than with MI5. We’ve got CCTV cameras all over the place, but still no torture centers to speak of.

    In general, the argument regarding warrants is pointless. Google isn’t waiting for them to show up or checking the constitutionality of government eavesdropping on ordinary citizens, it’s just giving it unfettered access. Considering the size of Google and number of people using it daily (and it’s history of complying with the Chinese government) I’d say that does make it a special case.

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