Why Google Should Stop Scouring the Private E-Mails of Gmail Users

Don Tennant

Any delusions of grandeur I have aren't nearly grand or delusional enough to make me think that anyone at Google cares about the content of the e-mails I send through my Gmail account. I have absolutely no doubt that no one at Google has ever read any of my e-mails. But I still detest the ads they serve to me based on the contents of my private correspondence.


If you use Gmail, you know the ads I mean: those one-liners with links that appear at the top of the Sent Mail list the moment an e-mail is sent. Google instantly scours the content of every e-mail you send, and delivers an ad based on that content.


To its credit, Google is totally up front about what it's doing. There's a prominent "About these ads" link that takes you to a page that describes the process. Most notably:

Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information. This type of automated scanning is how many email services, not just Gmail, provide features like spam filtering and spell checking. Ads are selected for relevance and served by Google computers using the same contextual advertising technology that powers Google's AdSense program.

Under the heading, "Privacy, Transparency and User Choice," Google adds this:

Privacy is an issue we take very seriously. Only ads classified as Family-Safe are distributed through our content network and to your Gmail inbox. Also, we are careful about the types of content we serve ads against. For example, Google may block certain ads from running next to an email about catastrophic news.

That's fine, but users are still subjected to ads that can be horribly invasive and insensitive. I sent some test e-mails with potentially sensitive words and phrases just to see what would happen, and the results were disturbing. My mails produced the following ads:


  • When I confided in a friend about a problem with "hemorrhoids," I saw an ad for hemorrhoid medication.
  • I mentioned that I might "need a lawyer," and up popped an ad from a Los Angeles law office.
  • My reference to a confidential matter relating to a person that may "need counseling" delivered an ad for a group of psychologists in Savannah.
  • Sharing a personal story in which I used the words "losing my hair" yielded an ad for a Texas institution that hawks thyroid medication for symptoms including hair loss.
  • Asking a close friend for advice relating to "anger management" got me an ad for an anger management package.
  • When I used the word "obese," I saw an ad from a bariatric surgeon in Texas.
  • After pouring my heart out to someone close to me about a "mental illness," I got a link for a free guide to understanding dementia.
  • Working up the courage to discuss a "flatulence" problem elicited an ad for a free sample of medication for gas, bloating and occasional constipation.


You get the point. No one who's dealing with any of these issues and is sharing this private information in confidence in his personal e-mail, needs the indignity of being accosted with unsolicited ads from people who want to capitalize on the situation.


Obviously, no one is forced to use Gmail, so there's some legitimacy to the response, "If you don't like the ads, don't use the system that's being made available to you free of charge." Moreover, on that "About these ads" page, Google explains an option that makes the ads invisible:

If you don't want to see ads in Gmail you have the option of using the HTML interface, or POP or IMAP. We're also committed to data liberation: if you decide to switch to a new email provider, it's easy to set up automatic forwarding for all new messages that arrive in your Gmail account.

So there's nothing sinister or underhanded going on here. It's just that the very act of scouring every word of users' private e-mails, even when it's automated, is unnecessarily intrusive, and can cause unnecessary discomfort. Google has plenty of ways to make money. It doesn't need to do this. Abandoning the practice would go a long way toward making Google's "Don't Be Evil" mantra really mean something.

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