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Privacy advocates target Google mail

Privacy advocates continued to turn up the heat on and its new free e-mail service Tuesday. A list of 28 privacy groups called on the firm to suspend its plans to scan the text of all incoming e-mail in order to deliver targeted advertisements to users.

Privacy advocates continued to raise objections on Tuesday to a new Google Inc. free e-mail service, which is slated to include targeted advertisements based on e-mail content. A list of 28 privacy groups called on the firm to suspend its plans to scan the text of all incoming e-mail in order to target the ads. Meanwhile, a European privacy organization has asked the British and German governments to investigate the service.

Google, for its part, says that computerized scanning of e-mails is nothing new; its service will perform essentially the same function as antivirus and anti-spam software, which routinely scan e-mail text already. No Google employees will read the e-mail, the firm said.

But a broad-based group of privacy advocates, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumers League, and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association formally raised objections Tuesday.

"Google’s proposed Gmail service and the practices and policies of its business units raise significant and troubling questions," the group said in a letter addressed to Google executives and released to the press. "The scanning of confidential email violates the implicit trust of an email service provider. ... and establishes reduced expectations of privacy in email communications. These precedents may be adopted by other companies and governments and may persist long after Google is gone."

Google's e-mail service, announced last week, is revolutionary in several ways.  Its mammoth storage offering — up to 1 gigabyte of space — dwarfs the storage space offered by Yahoo and Hotmail currently. It would also allow individual attachments of up to 10 megabytes, enough to send home a small movie to mom. The service is being tested right now; it's not clear when it will be widely available, but Google estimates the test will last about six months.

The service's advertising component has generated the most attention. To help pay for Gmail, Google plans to attract advertisers with the promise of including finely targeted advertisements. All incoming mail will have an advertisement attached, with the promotion based on keywords found in the e-mail's text. Theoretically, an e-mail that includes a discussion of an upset stomach caused by a disagreeable lunch could arrive with an ad for an antacid tablet.

Spooky idea
The idea is spooky enough to rankle privacy advocates, who say Google is going too far by poking through individual e-mails — even if a machine is doing the poking, and even if users have agreed to see the targeted ads as part of Gmail's terms of service.  Among the troubling issues, privacy advocates say, is that third-party e-mailers who write to people with Gmail accounts haven't given Google permission to scan the contents of their e-mails. 

"It brings us to the issue of consent," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "Has the person who is the sender agreed to this? This is a really big issue in terms of expectation of privacy."

Wayne Rosing, Google's vice president of engineering, just doesn't see it that way.

"We process e-mail no differently than a virus scanner or a spam filter, and no one seems to mind when people's mail is scanned that way," he said. He called complaints about the systems speculation about a new service that few have seen in action, and he anticipated that users will prefer receiving relevant ads.  "It will take some getting used to. That's one reason we’re doing the test."

Good corporate image
Google has one of the Internet's most trusted and recognizable brands. readers who responded to a Live Vote in an earlier story about Gmail didn't seem overly concerned about the privacy implications, though the Live Vote is not a scientific survey.  Two-thirds were eager to sign up, and only 13 percent expressed concern about the advertisements.

But Google's good corporate image and citizenship weren't comforting to Dixon, who was more concerned about the precedent that could be set by the Gmail service.

"I think people will accept this because it's Google and they have a likable corporate culture right now. But once this precedent is set, of scanning e-mail for the purpose of delivering content ... I don't know," she said.  "Other organizations might not have the same motivations or clarity that Google does right now."

Google also drew the ire of UK-based Privacy International with its Gmail service. On Monday, the group said it had filed complaints with the United Kingdom information commissioner and the Berlin data protection commissioner. Director Simon Davies says Gmail's terms of service violate European data protection laws. Specifically, he took issue with a portion of Gmail's terms of service that informs users that their data might remain on Google's servers even after they voluntarily terminate their accounts.

"Users must be able to delete their data, to effectively control their data," Davies said.

But Google officials say that provision is standard for all e-mail services, since data is frequently backed up on multiple machines, and it's nearly impossible to promise immediate destruction of data.'s free e-mail privacy policy includes a similar provision.

Rosing said the firm anticipated some concerns when the trial of the service was announced April 1 but added that the company is in an ongoing dialogue with privacy advocates — including Dixon and the Electronic Privacy Information Center — about their concerns.

"Google is committed to the highest standards of privacy," he said. "We honestly believe that's what we're trying to do here."

But the privacy advocates taking aim at Google's service fear much more is at stake than simple targeted advertisements.

"Google needs to realize that many different companies and even governments can and likely will walk through the scanning door once it is opened," the letter says. "As people become accustomed to the notion that e-mail scanning for ad delivery is acceptable, 'mission creep’ is a real possibility."