Friday, April 02, 2004

Does Google's new "Gmail" violate users' privacy? 

I've always thought the whole "free browser-based email" thing could be done better. The existing providers aren't user-friendly, have annoying ads and offer too little storage space. Now Google is beta-testing a new email service, Gmail, which would offer users 1GB of free storage space, among other benefits. But here's the thing that really caught my eye:
Gmail will be supported by text ads that appear in the margins of individual e-mails. Google software will automatically scan the messages for meaning, then try to offer relevant ads.
In other words, every message you write or receive will be scanned for content so that Google can display ads you might be interested in. Isn't this a little disturbing on privacy grounds? I think Google may be taking a good idea too far. The text ads that appear on the right side of the Google search page are wonderful. Because they're targeted to the search words you entered, the ads can afford to be minimal and unobtrusive. There's no annoying animation, no sweepstakes or porn (unless you search  for sweepstakes or porn!) Best of all, the ads are occasionally helpful.

The ads on Google's search page clearly do not violate privacy. When you search for something on the internet, you're basically telling Google, "I'm looking for information about X," so Google displays lots of information, including ads, about X. No problem. But when you write someone an email that's supposed to be private communication, that's a little different. Though I would trust Google to keep my messages from being read by other people, there's something disturbing about having them read at all, even by software. If your emails are already getting scanned for keywords for advertising purposes, it's only one small step to scan them for keywords the government may be interested in. Try to avoid words like "revolution" or "bomb" if you want to stay out of trouble. I'm not saying Google would do this, but even the possibility that they could is frightening. I'll stick with Yahoo mail for the time being. 1GB of space sure would be nice, though.
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