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There's no free lunch when it comes to Google's Gmail

Sharon Gaudin | Aug. 16, 2013
Privacy hubbub sparks online, but users aren't expected to ditch Gmail.

There's no such thing as a free email service, at least not when it comes to Google, according to industry analysts.

Google got slammed this week after longtime Google critic Consumer Watchdog lit up the Internet by pointing out a legal argument that Google attorneys made during a class-action lawsuit about the company's practice of scanning Gmail messages for key words to help target advertising.

"Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient's assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient's ECS [electronic communications service] provider in the course of delivery," Google's attorneys wrote in a motion ( download PDF).

And then quoting a 1979 case, Smith v. Maryland, they added, "Indeed, "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties."

When that comment became public, it unleashed an online firestorm about Google's privacy policies and a debate about whether people should expect privacy in their personal or business emails.

"We take our users' privacy and security very seriously; recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue," wrote a Google spokesperson in an email to Computerworld. "We have built industry-leading security and privacy features into Gmail -- and no matter who sends an email to a Gmail user, those protections apply."

Google doesn't have a roomful of employees sitting at desks reading everyone's personal Gmail messages. What the company does have is an automated delivery process that scans incoming emails for spam, viruses and keywords that help it target advertising to users.

That filtering process is laid out in Gmail's privacy policy.

"We also use this information to offer you tailored content - like giving you more relevant search results and ads," the company writes under "How we use information we collect" in its privacy policy.

"I think the real issue here is nave users thinking that they can get something for nothing," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Providers don't do anything for free. There's always an angle they're playing to either increase their revenue or profitability. And Google takes a back seat to no one when it comes to figuring out and exploiting all the angles. One of the best angles is using email contents to aim specific ads at users."

He added that it's a common practice for email service providers to scan messages for things like spam and advertising keywords.

"It's true that these are automated filters, not human beings, reading the emails and matching up the ads," said Olds. "I don't think consumers see this as a huge invasion of privacy, not because they don't have anything to hide, but mainly because they've never given it a thought. For most users, I think their main thought is "cool, free email" rather than "I wonder why this is free? What are they getting out of it?" "


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