April 9, 2004 | By Donna Wentworth

Google's Gmail and Your Privacy -- The Scoop

Google's announcement last week of its new Gmail email service sparked widespread speculation about the possible impact it would have on users' privacy. Among the questions EFF has been asking: What information would Google pull from email? Would it log this information? For how long? Could your Gmail address or any other personal identifier be linked to those logs -- or to your Google search history?

This week, we sat down with Google and got some preliminary answers; click on "More" for details:

~ How Google Scans Your Email

The process happens instantaneously: Google scans your email in order to target relevant ads the moment you click to open a message. The scan examines the text of the email you are opening and extracts what Google calls "concepts" in order to target relevant ads. By the time the text of your email is displayed, the ads have already been chosen and placed on the same page.

~ No Log Made of "Concepts" Data

Google says that no record is created of the "concepts" extracted from your email, nor is a log made of which ads are served to you. (Advertisers will see your IP address if you click through an ad, but this is the way most ads work online.)

~ Your Gmail Email Address Can Be Linked to Your Search History

It is possible to link your email address to your search history using your unique Google "cookie" - a bit of software code that automatically allows both the Google search engine and Gmail to "recognize" you whenever you return to the website. Unless you delete it, this cookie will remain on your computer's hard drive for long enough to be effectively permanent.

While Google says that it doesn't currently correlate email addresses with search history, we know that the company will do so if required by law - e.g., if it receives a search warrant, subpoena, etc. For this reason, EFF strongly recommends that Gmail users delete the Google cookie often.

~ What's Next?

Although some of our concerns have been addressed, others remain. Tune in next week to EFFector or here @ Deeplinks for a discussion of these concerns -- many of which would apply to any business offering a free gigabyte of Web mail.


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