Gmail and email

April 17, 2004

As I understand Gmail, the new service from Google, they are offering a pretty darn spiffy free email service, making a profit by running ads in the corner of the email, and fine-tuning the ads by scanning incoming emails for keywords.

This last aspect has some folks very worried about the privacy aspects, especially for people who send email to g-mail users but who may not want their content scanned for keywords and content. Others are less worried.

Like Eszter from Crooked Timber, I am only half-sympathetic to these worries. As I told folks back when I did technical consulting, email is a post card. More, it is a post card that you drop in the inter-office mail where it sits around as your co-workers walk by before it gets sent out into the wider postal stream. Do not write anything in an email that you would not write on a post card, and do not write anything in an email that you would not be willing to ask the office gopher to run down and photocopy for you.

These post cards are photocopied as they leave the office, at several points in the transmission system, and at the destination. Just because you hit send or the recipient hit delete does not mean that the email went away - there are still copies lying around on servers and backups and transmission nodes.

The only security any particular email has is either your decision to encode it with something like PGP, which means that only folks who are serious about reading your post card will be able to read it, or the fact that there are billions of emails streaming around the world every day and any particular message is lost in the clutter unless someone has a reason to look for it (or unless the content trips an internal filter that someone has set up in the mail stream - like having the word Visa and a sixteen digit number in the same email). The only security the copies of your email have is that space costs money and so people purge the old email spools after a few days or weeks except for internal mail spools at places that are legally obliged to keep a permanent record of all communications. Again, security through obscurity.

So, in practice G-mail is not exposing your email to any scrutiny that email does not already face on a regular basis. However, and this is the difference, Google is being up-front about their intention to scan email for content and then feed that content to their very smart software running on what is effectively a proprietary supercomputer.

I have low expectations for email privacy, and as a result I have low concerns about g-mail. On the other hand, I do recommend that everyone keep at least three separate email accounts: one through the workplace to use solely for work-related communication, one personal account to use for most personal communication, and one junk account through hotmail or yahoo that you use for situations where you have to give an email but know that it is likely to lead to spam. I actually have, erm, four work emails - one per college, three personal emails - two on this server, one through yahoo, and two junk emails - one for gaming, one for random web pages. That is a lot of email accounts.

Posted by Red Ted at April 17, 2004 10:24 AM | TrackBack

Add a work email - created a dedicated account to email dissertation references to myself.

Darn it is CONVENIENT to have your own domain.

Posted by: Red Ted at April 18, 2004 08:56 AM

How do you keep them all straight? I have two hotmail accounts, an MSN account, my ISP account, and my account (which I never use for anything, but I suppose I could). I can never remember to check them all.


Posted by: Me. at April 19, 2004 11:08 AM

The answer is that I check my yahoo emails a couple of times a week, less often for the gaming and junk accounts unless I am expecting an email to one of them. I check the teaching accounts a couple of times a week when I am teaching at that institution, a couple of times a month otherwise.

I think I need to set up POP access for my teaching email so that I can just let Eudora pull all the email down at once and sort it into separate mailboxes on a single program - that is what I do for my mail accounts.

Posted by: Red Ted at April 19, 2004 11:56 AM
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