Everybody Panic: Google’s Computers Are Reading Your Email

This breathless post by Dominic Rushe in the Guardian is full of misguided panic because of Google’s totally-reasonable response to a class-action lawsuit in California:

“Google has finally admitted they don’t respect privacy,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “People should take them at their word; if you care about your email correspondents’ privacy, don’t use Gmail.”

Oh for … The class-action lawyers are all fired up because Google — wait for it — looks for keywords in your email so it can serve relevant ads to you. And Google, in its response, said that yes, if you use Gmail, you should assume that this is happening. This is correct. You are silly if you don’t think Google is indexing your Gmail account so it can serve you ads. That’s the deal. There is no secret. Google serves you relevant ads based on the contents of your email.

It also indexes your email, by the way, so that you can search it lightning-fast, which everybody likes. Essentially, Google’s servers are creating a table of words and phrases for each email. It’s more complicated than that, but there’s absolutely no way you should be surprised by this. The Droid Lawyer explains this non-issue with much more patience than I can muster.

Should you feel icky about the fact that Google’s servers know what’s in your correspondence? Depends. Don’t forget that the NSA does, too, probably with Google’s cooperation. I pulled my email off of Google’s servers shortly after the NSA revelations, and I am perfectly happy storing it on my own server and accessing it with my iPhone and Postbox, which still indexes my email for lighting-fast search, but the index remains on my computer. It was easy, and even if the NSA is probably still reading my email, at least Google isn’t.

2014-05-14 Update

I was Google-free for all of two weeks, if I remember correctly. It turns out that Gmail is probably more secure than hosting my own email, and it’s way more convenient. I did, however, pay for Google Apps account for my own domain. I get a bit better control and a teeny bit less intrusion that way.


  1. Avatar PETER J. NICKITAS says:

    How did you get your email off Google? Is there an advantage to using xmission.com as an ISP?

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      Moving your email is pretty easy. Just set up a new account at whatever server you want to use, and switch your MX Exchange records for your domain. Your new server will give you instructions.

      To move over old email, I just used Thunderbird. If you set up both accounts at the same time, you can move messages from one account to the other.

      Although I just went back to Gmail. Ironically, my email is probably much safer on Google’s servers than on my own. Plus, even if you don’t use Gmail yourself, everyone else does (or a comparable email provider like Yahoo! or Microsoft).

      Resistance is futile.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      Oh, and I don’t know anything about xmission. I assume it’s similar to any other email server, from the user’s perspective.

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