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Google Reads Your Emails?

Geoff'sGooglePostMicrosoft’s astonishingly scurrilous campaign to damage confidence in Gmail is still active after nearly 10 years. Large ads in magazines repeat content from the Google-baiting website www.scroogled.com, which is dedicated solely to promoting fear of privacy invasions:

Think Google respects your privacy? Think again. Google goes through every Gmail that’s sent or received, looking for keywords so they can target Gmail users with paid ads. And there’s no way to opt out of this invasion of your privacy. Outlook.com is different—we don’t go through your email to sell ads.

Does Microsoft’s fear mongering work? Does anyone truly believe human beings could drink from the fire hose of the billions of emails that constantly gush through the Gmail servers? I wonder if typical users even grasp that it is a trivial task for a computer program to determine in milliseconds whether a given message contains a certain letter sequence, without any human wasting time looking at any of the text.

Let me illustrate with a rather intimate email that I happened to intercept last Sunday as it passed between two of your departmental colleagues:

Darling Carol:
I keep thinking about that incredible sex we had in my office yesterday. You were so hot! I hope there's no danger of your husband finding out (he'd probably come after me with a chainsaw; don't read your Gmail in the kitchen!) I guess the college would probably fire both of us if they found out the real reason we work Saturdays; but I'd risk anything to have you across my big filing cabinet for another hour of illicit pleasure!
Your secret lovemonkey,
Bob

Microsoft alleges that “Google scans the contents of your email and extracts what they think are relevant keywords in order to target you with ads.” The words “they think” is gross dishonesty: It falsely suggests that human judgment is involved. In truth, simply from the scale of email operations we know that Google’s ad-placement procedure must be based on fast algorithmic checking for the presence or absence of letter sequences on lists of words to which Google has sold the ad placement rights.

Let’s suppose that Gardening Unlimited has won the bidding to have Gmail place its ad next to messages containing either chainsaw or lawnmower; Kitchen Refit World has bought the rights for messages containing both kitchen and cabinet; Home Safety Universe has the rights for emails with both fire and danger occur; and DivorceLaw4You was the high bidder on the words divorce and attorney.

Bob’s message will check out as positive for chainsaw, kitchen, cabinet, fire, and danger, so when Carol sees Bob’s message on Gmail (and she will be the first to do so), she will also see advertisements for arboriculture hardware, culinary remodeling, and anti-combustion equipment in the right-hand margin (at least, under my doubtless oversimplified assumptions she will).

Does that really look to you like a violation of Carol’s privacy, or Bob’s?

Microsoft does make one remark in passing that we can agree with: Sometimes Google’s procedures “can give you ads that are inaccurate, inappropriate, or insensitive.” Carol’s ads are decidedly mistargeted: Bob’s message never talked about tree trimming, kitchen fixtures, or fire safety. DivorceLaw4You, possibly the firm most likely to be of future use to her, lost out because none of the words they won the bidding on were in Bob’s message. (Even if they had been, DivorceLaw4You wouldn’t have been allowed to see the message or learn the sender’s or recipient’s names, but would merely have been billed for the appearance of an ad on Carol’s screen.)

Carol is certainly in jeopardy—not from Google, but from Bob’s insane lack of discretion. Email is not the medium for such saucy communiqués. Her husband, Arthur, may suspect that her Saturday mornings on campus are not about class prep or research. Given her habit of using the name of the family dog as her password, it won’t be difficult for Arthur to log in to Gmail and access her recently deleted messages by double-clicking on the Trash mailbox. But then by the same means he could access her Outlook account if she had one.

Humans at the National Security Agency could probably also read Bob’s message if they wanted to; but by whatever means they can get access to Google’s servers to see Gmail messages, they can doubtless get access to Microsoft servers to see emails sent to Outlook accounts. Ad targeting has nothing to do with it.

The notion that Google ad-placement practices threaten our privacy is raving nonsense. You could only believe it if you had absolutely no understanding of the scale of email-handling operations (well over two million per second worldwide), or the simple-minded innocuousness of Google’s ad-targeting procedures, or the completeness of their automation. Microsoft spreads the myth of privacy invasion in order to scare the most ignorant users in the market.

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