So, Google has let the cat out of the bag. In papers filed to a San Jose court yesterday, the ‘Don’t be evil’ high-tech giant asserted that users of its free Gmail email service should have ‘no legitimate expectation of privacy’. Its argument in a motion to dismiss a class action accusing it of breaching wiretapping laws is based partly on the claim that Gmail users give implied consent to the automated processing of emails.

I’d like to think that no legal professional would transmit client confidential information across a free webmail service like Gmail or its competitors, but given the state of IT knowledge in parts of the sector I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens. But this is emphatically not a problem with just one company, or one species of email.

Coming on top of revelations about email scanning by intelligence agencies, Google’s claim merely emphasises what IT experts have said for a long time: conventional email is not a secure medium. Bluntly, legal professionals who treat it as such ought to be in trouble.

Of course some leaders of the profession are aware of the problem. Significantly, in his first major interview last month, Law Society president Nicholas Fluck raised the risks generated by cross-border transfer of data as a major challenge ahead.

The solution, as insisted upon by the government and parts of the medical profession, is to encrypt emails. Off-the-shelf products are available and can be integrated with familiar email systems. Sure, security geeks will tell you that commercial encryption is probably still crackable by the US government’s supercomputers, but it is secure enough for professional purposes. Compliance officers should insist on its use.

Lawyers are not the only ones who should worry. As a newspaper reporter I’ve sometimes been startled by the readers’ willingness to risk their careers and sometimes even liberty by leaking documents through unsecured email. However much we may pledge to protect our sources, if anyone really wants to find the culprit the electronic trail is there.

For the benefit of any leak-minded Gazette readers, I’m always delighted to discuss safer channels. The time honoured one is over a low-tech, but confidential, pint.

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor

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