Outstreched arm

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Google invents email, it seems

Goodness gracious. If you're going to write a technology article for a fairly large publication, it's good to be familiar with some basic 21st century technology. This is from Michael Agger's piece on privacy issues some Google users are concerned about:

A few months ago, a friend told me that he had stopped using Gmail. This seemed crazy. Gmail is free, it looks good, and you never have to delete anything. He thought it was a bad idea to entrust your personal communication to one company: "You don't know what they do with your e-mail. Even if you delete it, it still exists on their servers." Another friend, a lawyer, told me how Gmail exists in a murky privacy area. Because the Google servers "read" your e-mail to place the ads that appear next to it, a note sent via Gmail may not be a protected communication in the same way that a letter sent through the postal service is.

That's absolutely true. Firing off an email through Google's email servers is not the same as mailing a letter. But it's exactly like sending an email using any other company's email server - AOL, Yahoo!, your ISP, or the hosting you bought for your domain. Your message makes its way through somebody else's computer and a copy of it also finds a permanent home there (unless your email provider doesn't do regular backups, in which case you're probably using your nephew's gaming computer as your email server).

Yes, Gmail also "reads" your email to provide targeted ads. They, and every other provider, also "read" it in order to send it to the recipient. None of this is done by humans and all of it encompasses ALL the information you emailed. Of course, your local ISP may not run that extra content scan to decide which ads to show you. But again, how is this automated, brainless extra step a privacy problem?

Email servers don't "read" "just" the recipient's address. If "to read" means "to parse", they "read" all of it; if it means "to understand and possibly misuse", they don't "read" it at all. We humans tend to see any attempt at targeted parsing as a Skynet-like AI that understands.

For instance, many email clients (programs or websites you use, not email providers) will warn you if you're sending a message without a subject line. Is this problematic? Should the application be going through my communication instead of just sending it? Here's a more interesting example: there are plug-ins for email programs that will flag you if your message contains the word "attachment" (or something similar) but you haven't attached anything to the email. This solves a common problem - typing "I'm attaching a picture of my dog" and sending the email without attaching the file. Is this invasive?

Of course, one can (and will) argue that this is different. These are limited features, and we don't have to use them. And there are certainly ways that Google could misuse the contents of your email; I'm not arguing that privacy isn't a problem on the Internet. But one thing it's definitely not is a Google problem. Every ISP transmits, stores, and "reads" your email. They all have similar access to it, should they wish to misuse it.

P.S. Worrying about Gmail's targeted ads is like saying that the USPS is threatening your privacy because they offer Media Mail rates, which apply to packages containing books, music, computer media, and such. That's the sort of vague idea that Google (or rather, Google's computer programs) have about the contents of your email.

There are 1 Comments:

Anonymous JSherman said...

you can also consider any type of spam searching software...

it reads and tries to determine what your email is about so it knows how to flag the email.

12:52 PM  

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