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Evan Schuman: What if you can't trust your inbox?

Evan Schuman | July 9, 2014
Goldman Sachs is taking Google to court to force the cloud vendor to delete an email accidentally sent to a Gmail user. The consequences of a ruling for Goldman would be devastating.

When it realized what had happened, Goldman sent a message to that Gmail address, but it never heard back, according to the court filing. Goldman then reached out to Google's incident response team to request that the email be deleted and was told that a court order was needed.

Thus the court filing, in which Goldman makes some arguments and claims that are quite frankly disconnected from the world of rational and reasonable thought. Goldman told the court: "Absent an immediate injunction to ensure that the mistakenly sent E-mail is not accessed in any way, our clients face the risk of an invasion of privacy and disclosure of sensitive, confidential information about themselves and their accounts. Further, Goldman Sachs faces the risk of unnecessary reputational harm if it cannot reassure its clients that their privacy is being properly safeguarded."

Wow. Those two sentences pack in a lot of misleading garbage. Where to start?

Well, how about that "unnecessary reputational harm"? Does that errant email threaten Goldman's reputation? Perhaps, but who among us has not accidentally sent an email to the wrong address? Of course, Goldman's customers could view it harshly, deeming the nature of the information that was handled negligently as requiring extra care. Fair enough. But how exactly does the need to "reassure its clients that their privacy is being properly safeguarded" become Google's responsibility? How does the court measure this (self-inflicted and perhaps earned) reputational harm against Google's interest in maintaining the trust of its cloud customers?

Then there's the question of remediating the harm that was done. If there is a real person behind that Gmail account, it seems fairly likely that Goldman's message was either deleted right away or forwarded to a bunch of people weeks ago. At this point, the damage is done. A favorable court ruling will do tons of damage to the business community, but it's not going to help this situation much, if at all.

No, what Goldman wants is to set a precedent. It wants to let Google and other cloud vendors know that they must do retroactive cleanup from typos whenever a large company asks for it.

So the second sentence from Goldman's argument that I quoted above is misleading. But the first sentence just isn't true. Goldman states that "absent an immediate injunction to ensure that the mistakenly sent E-mail is not accessed in any way, our clients face the risk of an invasion of privacy and disclosure of sensitive, confidential information." The statement would be true, absent that "absent" clause. But the reality is that Goldman's clients face that privacy risk no matter what the court rules.

What's at stake here is the integrity of business communications. Business people need to know that, once received, an email won't be changed, deleted or altered by anyone other than the recipient. People have come to expect that after almost 20 years of using Outlook and other packages that download all messages. The cloud is supposed to be advance from that, not a manipulation-ready downgrade.

 

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