Tech Tip: Does Gmail mean the end of private e-mail?

Find out if Gmail means the end of private e-mail.

By Jonathan Yarden

Search authority Google has been all over the news in the past few months, so you've probably heard of Gmail by now. Announced in late March, Gmail is one of Google's recent high-profile efforts, a free e-mail service that offers up to 1 GB of storage space.

What's all the fuss about Gmail? Currently in beta testing, Gmail is a Web-based e-mail system—certainly not a revolutionary concept. Plenty of so-called free Web e-mail systems already exist. MSN, Yahoo, Lycos, and dozens of other "portal" Web sites have offered free Web-based e-mail for years.

But that doesn't mean that Google is just joining the ranks of these companies. By planning to offer 1 GB of storage, Google already surpasses the offerings of most of its competitors.

But in return for this service, Google intends to place ads in e-mails based on the message's content, meaning customers must agree to let the company scan correspondence for keywords. Of course, nothing is truly free, and that's the price users will pay for so much free storage.

Gmail has triggered a flurry of privacy concerns from various groups, evoking concerned responses from the World Privacy Forum and dozens of other civil liberties organizations. Main concerns include that the company hasn't clearly defined the scope of data mining and that Gmail opens the door to further erosion of e-mail as a private communication service.

A California state senator even introduced a bill to block the free service, a version of which the California state Senate approved in late May. The bill places strict limits on e-mail providers seeking to scan customer messages for advertising and other purposes.

Does Gmail set a dangerous precedent by lowering individual expectations of private communications? Does it open the door to perhaps nefarious use by governments and other companies?

I don't have the answers to these questions, nor do I argue the potential loss of privacy and security. However, it's important to remember that using Gmail is a choice.

In my opinion, if you're concerned about the privacy and security of your e-mail, simply don't use Gmail. But that also means don't send e-mail to a Gmail user; the system will scan incoming e-mail messages for content even if you're not a Gmail user. Those who choose to use Gmail can expect to receive targeted advertisements—that is the stated function of the service.

After reviewing a public letter to Google, prepared by 31 privacy and civil liberties organizations, I've decided that we can just as easily apply all of these concerns to any other Internet service. There's no reason to believe that this activity isn't already occurring when you use other free Internet services.

I can't fault Google for its effort. The company is patently honest when it comes to explaining that Gmail is a means to place targeted advertising in e-mail.

It's still your choice whether to use Gmail. If you're concerned, don't use it. I probably won't use Gmail myself—I already get enough junk mail.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

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