April 5, 2004 | By Donna Wentworth

Gmail: What's the Deal?

We're still figuring that out.

As you've no doubt heard, Google's new Gmail beta email service is raising concerns (reg. req.) about privacy. How much concern? Well, let's just say that it's not often that a new email service is widely misinterpreted as an April Fool's joke.

The basic idea: Google will offer you a gigabyte's worth of email storage capacity -- by one count, up to 500 times that offered by its competitors. But it also plans to scan the contents of your email messages in order to display advertisements relevant to your online conversations.

"Because many people wouldn't have to delete email, they could potentially search for communications a year or two, or 10 in the past, with ease," notes a CNET article. "The downside of that is the creation of a centralized honeypot of personal data for legal investigations."

So how will Google handle this? In the midst of the explosion of speculation about Gmail's implications for privacy, Wired offered a reassuring quote from an engineering VP @ Google: "Rosing said Google will not keep a log of which ads went to which users, nor will it keep a record of keywords that appear often in an individual's email."

Okay, so that sounds promising. But we can't yet confirm it.

"People are entitled to know what kind of information Google will pull from email, whether or not it logs this information, and for how long," said EFF's Kevin Bankston. "Can your Gmail address or any other personal identifier be linked to those logs, or to your Google search history?"

"Gmail's privacy policy states that 'Google welcomes feedback on this document and policy as the Gmail service is currently in an early testing stage.' While that's a nice sentiment, we can't give meaningful feedback until we have all the facts."

The remedy to the situation is obvious: Google needs to let us all know precisely what the privacy/convenience trade-off is for using Gmail, and soon.

On Saturday, Doc Searls suggested that the April Fool's confusion could drive serious discussion about Gmail's privacy implications right off the page, and that it might soon fade away.

It won't.

Read on for a brief tour through news pieces that point to and/or explore Gmail's outstanding privacy issues:

Google's Email Strategy Criticized (reg. req.): "Page wouldn't say whether Google planned to link Gmail users to their Web search queries. 'It might be really useful for us to know that information'
to make search results better, he said. 'I'd hate to rule anything like that
out.'"

Why I Couldn't Consider Google's Email: "The 'privacy policy' for the not-yet-available Google 'GMail' email service is nothing short of chilling."

Why Gmail Gives Me the Creeps: "The Google contextual advertising system automatically scans [Gmail users' incoming email] for frequently used terms in order to serve up ads...The company says it is not going to read the contents of anyone's in-box. Still, you don't need to be a privacy extremist to realize that this fundamentally remains a bad idea."

Google's Web Mail No Joke: "With Gmail, Google will become a prime repository for personal profiles or life memories...Because many people wouldn't have to delete email, they could potentially search for communications a year or two, or 10 in the past, with ease. The downside of that is the creation of a centralized
honeypot of personal data for legal investigations..."

GMail Not So Google-rific: "What's to stop our good ol'buddy John Ashcroft down at the U.S. Justice Department from dropping by Google headquarters with a quiet little PATRIOT Act subpoena, or something similar, that would instruct Google to add a few extra features to its machine that reads emails, creating 'special' searches to 'help with the war on terror'?"

Google Responds to Gmail Privacy Concerns: "In response, Google says what's drawing concern is what computers are capable of doing, not what the company does in reality...But [Google] stopped short of saying that the company will never correlate [your Gmail identity with your Google search behavior]. 'Then it gets to be an issue of what happens if we have to do something to comply with a legal situation,' [Google] said, apparently speaking of criminal cases in which the company might be subpoenaed by law enforcement."


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