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Computers

Gmail and Privacy

Some people might say I’m naive, but I trust Google. Could it soon turn into an “ugly” corporation? Yes. There are some indications it’s moving in that direction—for example, its introduction of banner ads, when they used to have just text-only ads. I won’t trust them forever, but I trust them now. There is a lot of skepticism in the media these days about Google’s new “free” email program Gmail, so much so that Google has to even offer a disclaimer page in light of the controversy.

Well, what are people so upset about? Apparently, Google’s robots (i.e., not real human people) will scan incoming emails in order to target ads relevantly to the email content—the idea being that it makes sense, for instance, if you’re discussing music with your friend that ads for music services would appear next to the email message, as opposed to ads for a digital camera or a vacation to Paris. The skepticism itself reveals a large degree of naivete, though. If a company (especially a major one) says its robots will scan your emails and not its employees, you have to trust them; otherwise, don’t use their service. If you don’t trust the folks at Google, why would you trust the folks at Hotmail or Yahoo? They also say they won’t have humans read your emails… but you don’t know. You never know. As long as your email messages reside on their servers (yes, the messages physically reside in other people’s computers), someone else will have access to those messages and you have to trust that they won’t read them.

The only way to be truly safe is to buy an extra computer, make that computer a server, and create your own email program that will store your messages on your own server; then, you have to make sure you encrypt all your messages with the latest security technology. Very few people do this. Most of your email is open and out there. If you use Hotmail or Yahoo! and you trust them not to read your emails because they say they won’t read your emails, you have to trust Google not to read your emails as well.

Google’s disclaimer page makes a good point, too, that every email provider scans emails. That’s how they institute spam-blocking, by scanning for content. The real issue is whether or not Google reveals any information about you to the sponsoring advertisers whose links you click on. Google says it doesn’t. And you just have to trust what they say because that’s what you’re probably doing right now with someone else.

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