Friday, April 02, 2004

Gmail privacy concerns

So everyone is freaking out about the "invasion of privacy" that will occur on Gmail, Google's new email service. There are major news stories everywhere as well as lots of conversation across the blogosphere. A "story" has even been posted on the Drudge Report (I'm not quite confortable calling one of Drudge's reports a story, still the topic will get loads of attention for being there). Here's a WaPo article; WIRED article; WaPo article #2.

While I appreciate the concern over online privacy in gerneral (it is a problem), an interviewee in the first WaPo article listed above uses an unhelpful analogy - "Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center ... likened the Gmail ads to a computerized voice interrupting a phone conversation about a vacation with a pitch for a travel agency.'" This doesn't contribute to my understanding of the situation at all. Why? Because there's such a big difference in the sensory methods by which email and voice mail is accessed. When you are reading an email you can just ignore all the ads on the side of the page, just like you do now when you go to any webpage. You may not have noticed, but Google actually serves ads in a box on the right side of many major web sites - for the record they aren't the annoying blinking type.

Google states that "it would use automated technology to scan the content of incoming e-mail for keywords and place related text ads inside the mail. For example, if someone sent an e-mail to a Gmail user suggesting they go out for Mexican food, the recipient might see a couple of text ads in the right column of the e-mail suggesting specific Mexican restaurants in their area." The ads will not be within the text, obviously. It is difficult to understand how this could be considered "editorializing" the email.

The most reasonable voice being quoted is that of Ari Schwartz of the DC based Center for Democracy & Technology. He notes in the WIRED article that there is a "lower threshold for allowing law enforcement to obtain e-mails that have been stored for more than 180 days." So law enforcement has to work harder to get fresh email, but as Schwartz points out - this situation is the same for every ISP. So if you use Yahoo or Hotmail and have mail saved from back in the day, the gov't can get at it more easily than more recent email. This is a privacy issue that may impact more if people begin saving all their email on Gmail due to the ton of space alloted to each user.

Why would users get worked up about machines looking for keywords in email? It must just be a general techno paranoia - if the gov't wants to get your email, they'll get it, and they don't need Google's help.

To conclude, I will getting me some o' that Gmail when it comes out, much like Mary Linneborg, who is interviewed in this article. Unlike Mary though, I will not "be curious to see what they would try to sell me."


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