Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam, has raised concerns over Google’s practice of scanning personal emails to generate targeted advertisements online and described the process as “creepy”.
Google was answering questions during a Senate enquiry on adequate protections for privacy of Australians online.
The company, which has long been attacked over user privacy, landed in hot water when it admitted it inadvertently collecting personal information through unlocked Wi-Fi networks while Google Streetview cars were sweeping the streets.
During the hearing, Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam, enquired about how Google handles emails received through Gmail in particular with its algorithms scanning mail in order to push contextualised ads.
“It’s the same kind of technology that also scans to identify viruses or spam,” Google public policy and government affairs manager, Ishtar Vij, said. “In a similar way it looks at patterns… so in the case of advertising, if a keyword appears it targets the relevant ads [to the user].”
She pointed out if users did not want to see the ads on Gmail, they could opt for a HTML version of the email service.
“I find the whole concept a little creepy, particularly as those algorithms get better and better,” Senator Ludlam said.
He was also concerned about how deep into a user’s communication the keyword algorithms probe.
While Google maintains no staff have access to the collected information, Senator Ludlam raised concern over the safety of the data should a law enforcement agency serve a warrant to inspect them.
“Anything in the nature of a ‘fishing expedition’ [by police] will not be accepted,” Google head of public policy and government affairs, Iarla Flynn, said.
Fishing expedition refers to an investigation intending to seek out new information. “Request for customer data we take very seriously and the request will need to meet… the law,” Flynn said.
Senator Ludlam raised the point the safety of customer data is then reliant on Google’s goodwill.
Labor Senator, Doug Cameron, put forward some questions for Google to answer at a later date.
While the company has stated it will not cooperate with law enforcement fishing expeditions, it does so for the purpose of profit with scanning email for advertising, he said.
“I’d like you to think about that and tell me if that is a position that is acceptable,” Cameron said.