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Is it unwise to use gmail to discuss business ideas that Google could snoop on and use to their business advantage? I know that email is not secure and anyone could read it along its path of delivery, but I feel the level of potential snooping is much higher with gmail and google than regular email. So under the gmail Terms of Service (TOS) is Google allowed to read your emails and make business decisions based upon learning what you write about or may they only use the information to target advertising toward you? If not allowed under their TOS, is it wise to avoid free email services like gmail anyway since they are looking already and thus could easily violate the TOS with little effort.

In summary, if I'm going to discuss business ideas with another individual over email, is there any real benefit to using a service other than gmail, such as a paid service where the provider does not have the right to look through your emails?

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The relevant section of the google terms of service is the Your Content In Our Services section:

Some of our Services allow you to upload, submit, store, send or receive content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. Also, in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to our Services.

Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.

I am not a lawyer and am not affiliated with google, but the answer clearly seems to be no. Your ideas stay your own intellectual property though google may use your submitted content within their products.

Addendum On the other hand though, if I had some secret information that could be used or sold to a competitor to make a lot of money (e.g., imagine a hedge fund with a trading algorithm that has a history of making billions) then I would never publicly share that information with any service regardless of their Terms of Service. I would only consider sharing it with people who are locked under very strong non-disclosure/non-compete agreements who only have access to the information on systems I control.

Even if the other business states they will not look at information I upload, I simply will not trust them and all their employees with my (unencrypted) information. The one exception may be to backup personal source code where I encrypted it locally on a trusted computer prior to uploading an encrypted copy (protected by a very strong passphrase).

  • While it is good advice not to rely on a company's terms of service for not snooping around sensitive data, this answer appears to be largely based on ideas being subject to intellectual property rights at all, which is a misconception. – Marcks Thomas Jun 27 '14 at 11:11
  • Isnt the phrase '...and to develop new ones' a giant open door? Basically, they are reserving the right to publish a website titled 'all this random users nude photos', as long as they call it a 'new service'. Now I bet there are better nude pictures than mine on the internet so there is some security in that; but basically, if you ever plan to become a high profile public persona, while retaining the ability to ever act against Google in any way, their language implies you better not use their services. – Eelco Hoogendoorn Jan 7 at 15:00
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When using a paid provider, you have no guarantee they WON'T read your e-mail either. Legally in the United States, a provider can read, and store your e-mail:

The ECPA also permits an ISP to look through all stored messages, including email awaiting you in your mailbox or recently sent and received mail. Some ISPs temporarily store all messages that pass through the system. The ECPA normally prevents the ISP from disclosing the messages to others, but even here there are exceptions. Law enforcement officials, when armed with proper warrants or administrative subpoenas, can gather basic information about users from ISPs, including their names, and also gain access to the content of stored messages. Also, once the email reaches its destination, the ECPA does not protect against snooping at the recipient's mailbox.

SOURCE

Now, it is doubtful Google would read your e-mail for the sake of stealing a business idea. Most of their applications (knowledge of them) seem to scour your e-mail for targeted marketing purposes. If you take the time to wonder at how many e-mails Google processes in a day, it would be an enormous fishing expedition to find that ONE e-mail out of hundreds of millions.

There has been an instance where Google was sued for abusing/breaking wiretap laws in the past however, I couldn't find the outcome of this case. Realistically though, the problem isn't with Google, or Hotmail, or even if you ran your OWN e-mail server. The problem lies in the fact that most e-mail can be seen at some point by anyone, if that message is unencrypted. The solution for that, encrypt your message, THEN send it.

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