GMail is no April Fools joke, unfortunately

If you liked the privacy policy and fine prints of Orkut, you will love those of GMail, the new email service from Google that once looked like an April Fools joke. Google Watch warns us:

This page is not meant to be an analysis of Gmail, but while you are at it, please read the privacy page and the terms-of-use page for Gmail. Note that if you delete an email, Google may mark it so that it is invisible to you, but might not really delete it. And if you terminate your account, Google does not guarantee that they will erase your emails. Google decides what to delete and when, not you. It's none of your business.

While Google brags that no humans will read your emails, the entire Gmail program will involve extensive automated profiling of you as an individual. Google will be sharing the non-identifiable portions of your profile with anyone they choose. If the ownership of Google changes, or there is a merger, the entire personally-identifiable profile will be available to the new owners or partners.

The Register highlights another problem, the ability for Google to link your emails to your search queries, which Larry Page explicitly didn't rule out:

"Once users register for Gmail, Google would be able to make that connection, if it chose to," Pam Dixon, head of the World Privacy Forum told the Los Angeles Times. "And if Google ever compared the two sets of data there are some people who would be chilled and embarrassed." Richard Smith, formerly at the Privacy Foundation pointed out that "Google kind of makes it easy to connect all the dots together."

Rather than allay these fears, Google's accident-prone co-founder Larry Page refused to rule out a future policy of 'joining the dots'. A simple "No, Never" would have prevented much of the damage. But asked if Google planned to link Gmail users to their Web search queries, Page replied:

"It might be really useful for us to know that information. I'd hate to rule anything like that out."

I don't know for you, but the idea that one can crawl my private correspondence to profit from it makes me sick. Even if they're using machines to do so. Google has definitely a strange idea of privacy.

5 Comments

I beg to differ from his opinion, which I find quite naïve.

"Machines read your e-mail all the time. This is news to only very few people: one's e-mail is being machine read all the time, especially by web mail services. Web mail services need to process, or "read", the e-mail to 1) look for spam, 2) remove security hazards such as malicious code, and 3) present the e-mail in the browser. This is nothing new, every web mail service does this, assuming that they have security and spam prevention systems."

Yes, but not for profiting from its content (what he cites are real services provided to punters). Saying, as he does, that there is no problem in having Google fine tune the ads it will add according to the content of the email being sent (in short, bringing AdWords to your email) is admitting that private correspondance is not private and can be yet another form of profiling. Saying that Google will not sell your profile to others is naïve, they're selling it to their own customers: AdWords clients. And The Reg is right, Google can be acquired by another company with even less consideration for privacy.

Let me give you an idea: would you accept that on your table at the café or restaurant, there is one machine that records your conversation and, on a regular basis, offers you ads when it thinks it has a match? Or permanently store that content in order to perform "machine cycles" on it for shareholders value?

I'd rather be paranoid than naïve (safe than sorry) when it comes to privacy issues and companies putting figures on my personal profile.

Time to (re)read The Space Merchants (Planète à gogos en français) from Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth.

I agree with your assessment François, but like most services, it exists to sell advertising. If the functionality is really enticing i.e. 1 GB mailbox, good search functionality, an 'xxx@gmail.com' address, then I doubt folks will think twice about privacy issues.

If it comes down to advertising, they should -at least- offer an option where it can be switched off, for a nominal fee. With a promise that the content will never be indexed for advertising purposes. Unlikely, though.

The ads profiling doesn't bother me, because they're not selling personal profiles to their AdWords clients: none of them will ever know who and what you are. (Unless their referrer logs show the gmail address in the URL, which would just be lazy programming from Google, and I don't expect that.)

However, their TOS didn't deter me from trying out Orkut, but I don't think I'd accept them for a webmail. I'll still sign up as soon as I can, just so that nobody else has garoo@..., but I'm not sure they can really be successful if they don't change them.
When Hotmail tried to change (to microsoftize?) their privacy policy, they did have to step back in front of the public's reaction.

("the gmail address" : I meant "unless your email address appears in the gmail URL")

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