Your mail is private and protected by law from prying eyes. Your e-mail is not. Now, some of the words you write to your family and friends are being sold to the highest bidder.
“I think a lot of users would be surprised to learn that is how their personal information is being treated,” says John Verdi, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He is talking about Gmail, Google’s free e-mail service.
“Users don’t expect the contents of their e-mail to be driving marketing campaigns,” Verdi says. Gmail is selling ad space based on the content of your e-mail, current and past.
The company admits this in a video on its website: “Let’s say you’re reading a confirmation e-mail from a hotel in Chicago. Next to your e-mail, you might see ads about flights, restaurants, or other things relevant to a trip to Chicago.”
An actual Gmail account was set up to see how specific it got. A note about a trip to New York delivered ads for New York hotels. A question about cosmetic surgery - ads for services in our neighborhood. And a potentially sensitive message about a friend’s pregnancy - a link for an ultrasound.
Google even translated a lunch date for “next Friday” into the exact date and offered to put it and the location on our calendar.
Google says it’s not technically reading your e-mail, but rather scanning it. The video on Google’s website says, “Of course the system is entirely automated, no humans are involved in selecting ads. It’s similar to the way we filter for spam or check spelling.”
Still, some key words picked up from e-mails like “ultrasound,” “dog,” and “beach properties” are flagged so Google can deliver ads while those messages are in your inbox.
Steve Crossan, product manager for Gmail ads, told Fox, “Any e-mail service could, in principle, create an interest profile based on frequent keywords in mail. Currently, Gmail’s policy is not to do this; our ads serving system involves no logging or storage of interests.”
But Google, or any other e-mail service, could change its policy and add that e-mail data to information that the company and marketers already know about you.
“Marketers out there can create very detailed dossiers about a person, not only what you’re interested in, but demographic information; race, gender, all those kinds of things,” according to Maneesha Mithel of the Federal Trade Commission.
Companies bid on how much they’re willing to pay to have their ads placed on the page you’re viewing. The more an ad service knows about you, the better it can tailor an ad to your interests and the more they can charge for it. It’s called behavioral targeting, and the Federal Trade Commission is working to strengthen guidelines for companies.
“That’s the way a lot of the internet is funded. So there are benefits as well as risks,” Mithal says. The risks are that you knowingly reveal too much about yourself. Every time you browse the web, that information is collected and saved.
“What we type into that Google box or that Yahoo box or that Bing box says a lot about us,” Verdi says. If you’ve ever Googled your own name, or got directions from your home, all those data pieces come together to point right back to you.
“Companies try to give the impression that things are free, but in reality, you’re trading information about yourself, you’re trading your own personal data for access to free services,” Verdi says.
Don’t like it? There’s not a lot you can do.
“The laws on privacy are essentially non-existent in so far as internet user rights are concerned,” Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher is working to change that by proposing laws that will better protect internet users’ privacy. For now, consumers can choose to “opt out” of data collection, but that’s only available on some sites.
“It’s really hard for consumers to do that because companies take a ‘take it or leave it’ stance with regard to a lot of these products,” Verdi says.
Or there’s always a return to ‘snail mail’ – for communications that are truly meant to be private.