No one cares that Google is snooping in their inbox

Google is to stop reading users’ emails. But do we really care about online privacy?

Google has said it will stop scanning the contents of Gmail users’ inboxes for ad targeting. Photograph: Loic Venanceloic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Google has said it will stop scanning the contents of Gmail users’ inboxes for ad targeting. Photograph: Loic Venanceloic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

 

Google is to put an end to its habit of reading users’ personal emails in order to send them targeted ads. But does anyone actually care?

The tech giant has never made a secret of the fact that it reads – or as it prefers to say, “scans” – users’ private correspondence. “Our system may automatically scan the content in our services, such as emails in Gmail, to serve you more relevant ads,” it brightly informs users.

“Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information.”

A handful of critics have been arguing, since the service was launched in 2004, that the practice of scanning and analysing users’ emails – whether it’s done by humans, bots or highly trained rhesus monkeys – is intrusive and creepy.

As an ongoing lawsuit in California puts it, it is the equivalent of a phone provider “listening in on people’s phone calls or the United States Postal Service reading personal letters” – something that would presumably cause an outcry. Or would it?

The vast majority of Gmail’s 1.2 billion users don’t seem to care if the tech giant knows they are in the market for a new car, a new stroller or a new relationship before their loved ones do. They might feel briefly uncomfortable, but they weigh it up and decide it’s a price worth paying for a service that’s free and easy to use. Or they might get momentarily outraged – until another amusing gif comes along to distract them.

There is a vast chasm between what we think we care about online, and what we actually care about – a chasm illustrated by the fact that 92 per cent of Europeans say it is important that their emails remain confidential, while 1.2 billion people in the world use Gmail regardless.

In survey after survey, consumers claim to have profound and growing fears about privacy. But our behaviour suggests otherwise – whether it’s blithely posting photos of our young children on Instagram, or sharing intimate details of our lives on Facebook.

The phrase “privacy paradox” refers to the readiness with which we’ll give up something we claim to care deeply about, in exchange for something free, or for the fleeting dopamine high we get from plundering our own private moments.

When it comes to weighing up the cost of actions where cause and effect are separated by large expanses of time and space, we are terrible decision makers. Online privacy concerns get filed into the same remote part of our brains as fears about climate change, sugar consumption, smartphone addiction.

Recently, Google introduced a “smart reply” feature on its iPhone and Android apps, which scans email content and, using machine learning technology, offers users a choice of three instant replies. You can now reply with a “Cool, thanks!” or “Sounds good” without having to type the words “Cool, thanks!” or “Sounds good”.

The aim of the feature was to alleviate the pain of typing (if typing was really so painful, though, wouldn’t they just call?). But while a handful of people seemed annoyed to be served another cheeky reminder of how Google was perusing all of their private emails, most either didn’t notice, or didn’t care.

Business users tend to be less apathetic about their privacy, which is – Google says – what prompted the latest move.

The emails of G Suite’s three million paying customers have never been scanned for advertising purposes, but that distinction was lost on some, Diane Greene, Google’s senior vice president of cloud, said in a blogpost. “G Suite’s Gmail is already not used as input for ads personalisation,” she said. “Google has decided to follow suit later this year in our free consumer Gmail service. Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalisation after this change.”

A more plausible explanation for the move, however, may be that it is a pre-emptive strike against various regulations and lawsuits which have been coming Google’s way. 

Because even if the vast majority of the emailing public doesn’t care much about its privacy, the European Commission cares intently on our behalf. It announced in January that it intended to extend privacy rules to Gmail, as well as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, iMessage and Viber in a new ePrivacy Regulation which is due to come in next year.

Google has also been caught up in an ongoing wrangle in the California courts with lawyers acting on behalf of non-Gmail users, whose emails are being scanned whenever they are sent to a Gmail user – even though they themselves have never signed up to Google’s terms of services.

A judge in California recently threw out a proposed settlement in which Google agreed to pay $2.2 million to lawyers, and nothing at all to the consumers whose privacy was being violated.

“This notice ... does not clearly disclose the fact that Google intercepts, scans and analyzes the content of emails sent by non-Gmail users to Gmail users,” US Judge Lucy Koh said.

Google doesn’t intend to stop scanning users’ emails for other purposes, including detecting spam and phishing. It will also continue to scan emails to automate more and better “smart reply” responses. And it will do so in the knowledge that we all know it’s watching our every move – and none of us really care.

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