Google's Terms "Might Legally Permit" Accessing Gmail To Find Leakers

Over the past few weeks, I've heard a few stories about Google or Twitter employees letting it slip that they can check your email or read your DMs—the kind of hushed anecdotes that are hard to prove. But, somehow, Google's statement denying recent allegations makes that NSA-fueled paranoia feel more concrete.

Last night, Google general counsel Kent Walker made the "unusual move" of directly addressing Michael Arrington's claim that that company spied on his Gmail. (After news broke that Microsoft looked into a reporter's Hotmail, Arrington wrote a blog post alleging that a Google employee who leaked information to his Gmail was soon out of a job.)

Walker told Re/code:

"Mike makes a serious allegation here — that Google opened email messages in his Gmail account to investigate a leak," Kent Walker, Google general counsel, said in a statement. "While our terms of service might legally permit such access, we have never done this and it's hard for me to imagine circumstances where we would investigate a leak in that way."

"Might legally permit" and "hard for me to imagine" are not phrases you want to see in the same sentence as a company's denial.

Just last week Google successfully jumped a major legal hurdle in a lawsuit that it surreptitiously data-mined millions of student emails through Apps for Education, a suite of tools that "has 30 million users worldwide and is provided by the company for free to thousands of educational institutions in the United States."

Lucky for the $380 billion company, a district judge in California "refused to let the case proceed as a class action," so the plaintiffs need to use their own financial resources to pursue the case.

It's not just Google. Re/code points out that other tech companies are also protected by the rules around using their free products.

It turns out the Microsoft's terms of service allows it to access user communication in order to "protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers."

Moreover, the terms of service of Google and Yahoo's free, hosted email services afford it similar privileges.

This concludes your daily reminder that if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. Thanks for playing.

[Image via @TEDchris]