Long before Edward Snowden exposed how the government exploits personal data culled by Internet companies, privacy advocates feared that Google's methods of mining email content was a disaster in the making.
Back in 2004, former California state Sen. Liz Figueroa wanted to advance legislation that would have allowed people the right to opt out of the targeted advertising Google used in its then-new email service, Gmail.
Noticing her skepticism, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page sat down with Figueroa to discuss her concerns about how company bots read emails.
"All of a sudden, Sergey started talking to me," Figueroa recounts in the second installment of PBS's new Frontline documentary, United States of Secrets. "He said, 'Senator, how would you feel if a robot went into your home and read your diary and read your financial records, read your love letters, read everything. But before leaving the house, it imploded.' "
Brin proceeded to tell Figueroa that such a robot, like Gmail, didn't violate privacy because "nothing's kept, nobody knows about it." (Start the clip above at 2:05 to watch the full exchange.)
Figueroa was shocked by the strange comparison—and entirely unconvinced.
"Does that robot know if I'm sad or if I'm feeling fear or what's happening?" she asked Brin. "And he looked and me and said, 'Oh, no. That robot knows a lot more than that.' "
Figueroa ultimately amended her bill, believing that Google would not keep the personal information it collected. "Unbeknownst to me, ultimately they were going to store the information," she explains in the documentary.
Ten years later, it's almost impossible to escape the type of ad-targeting that Google popularized with Gmail, no matter where you go on the Internet. Facebook tracks user behavior to target ads to its more than 1 billion users.
Companies like Google for years defended their data-collection practices and said that it was beyond the reach of government authorities. But leaks supplied by Snowden and published by The Washington Post last December revealed that the National Security Agency has exploited a type of Google "cookie" used to track Internet activity for the purposes of its own surveillance. The Snowden files have also exposed an NSA program that secretly broke into the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, including Google.
"Gmail was a privacy disaster," Chris Hoofnagle, the director of Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, told Frontline.