Morgan Drexen examines the email scanning policies of the top 3 web based email service providers: Google’s Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Outlook.com
So the government may be snooping in on your emails and phone calls. Is anyone really surprised? The fact is, recent revelations that the National Security Agency is operating a secret surveillance program known as PRISM has generated about as many shrugs as it has feigned outrage. Two factors are likely behind this. First, in the post 9/11 era, most people recognize (and begrudgingly accept) that monitoring, analyzing and intercepting phone and email communications is simply a logical way to stop bad guys from doing very bad things. Second, most of us have essentially given away digital reams of personal information via social media, online accounts, and metadata attached to all of our phone calls and emails. For the vast majority of us, the government is a silent observer telling us to “carry on.” The real Big Brother to worry about is the advertising industry. With over 1.2 million businesses subscribing to Google’s adwords as of 2011, the advertising industry is accountable for generating 97% of Google’s revenue – and now they know how you search, who you talk to, and what your emails are about.
We know advertisers are obsessed with learning as much as they can about every one of us. It’s called targeted advertising. But would they dare invade our email inboxes to snoop around? Morgan Drexen (www.morgandrexen.com), a leading provider of software and outsourced support services to businesses nationwide, decided to check up on the top three web based email service providers to find out. Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) and Yahoo! Mail have all tried to distance themselves from PRISM, denying any direct involvement in the government surveillance program. To be sure, all three generally receive high marks for protecting users from hackers and spammers. But what about shielding personal emails from the prying eyes of advertisers? Well, it turns out many web-based email providers are actually doing the snooping for the advertisers. Here’s what the biggest three web-based email providers are up to:
Now in its ninth year of existence, Google’s Gmail is the most popular and arguably the least private of the big 3 web based email platforms. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” said Google chief executive Eric Schmidt in 2009. Not exactly an encouraging statement. It turns out Google goes through every Gmail that is sent or received, looking for keywords to target Gmail users with advertisements.
Here is Google’s explanation of how it peruses email accounts to generate advertisements:
For many people, Google’s assurance that no humans are reading their emails simply isn’t good enough. In 2012, a Pennsylvania woman filed a lawsuit accusing Google of illegal wiretapping for “intercepting” emails she sent to Gmail accounts and publishing content-related ads. In other words, even if you don’t use Gmail yourself, when you email someone who does, Google is scanning the contents of that email.
Until recently, Yahoo! Mail was more diligent than Gmail at protecting the privacy of its users’ personal emails. No longer. As of June 3, 2013, Yahoo! began the process of automatically switching subscribers from its old Mail Classic email service to a new updated version. Just like Gmail, Yahoo’s new email service subjects users to automated email scanning, like it or not.
Here’s what Yahoo! is telling its users:
As you can see, the automatic switch requires users to accept automated content scanning. Yahoo! says it is possible to opt out of the ads, but only if you pay to do so by subscribing to Yahoo! Mail Plus.
Microsoft may have the moral high ground against its two main competitors, since its Outlook.com service (formerly Hotmail) does not scan emails to generate targeted ads. To highlight this fact, Microsoft has launched an aggressive online campaign against Gmail in hopes of poaching customers. Microsoft’s “Scroogled” campaign, focusing on Gmail’s message-scanning tactics, has gained significant traction. But Microsoft is not completely immaculate when it comes to tracking the habits of its email users to generate ads. Outlook.com recently launched versaTiles, which are ads that appear on the right side of the inbox page. The ads may or may not have relevance to the individual user. Microsoft says its email ads can focus on things the user has clicked on before.
So of the big 3 web based email providers, Microsoft’s Outlook.com appears to be the least invasive when it comes to scanning emails, particularly for advertising purposes. But with the government and advertisers now doing so much poking around people’s inboxes, does it really matter which service you use? Expecting your private messages to be completely private is now a quaint notion of the past.