gmail-is-too-creepy.com not only outlines why it’s probably not a great idea to give Google all your email (they will never delete anything and they can link your email contents to your searching and your blogging and your comments on Blogger weblogs), it’s also not a great idea to send email to someone else’s gmail account. I for one feel no need to centralise all information about my online activities with Google. (via Dennis Jerz)

16 thoughts on “gmail-is-too-creepy.com

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  2. dr. b.

    I have to admit that I do use gmail to hold all of my yahoo1 groups mail, but that is just for knitting listservs. I don’t think I much care if gmail knows about all of my covert knitting activities 🙂

  3. Johanka

    As of now, most of the mail I have with Gmail is in Czech, and I seriously doubt that many Google employees can speak the language. 😉

  4. Lars

    Gmail may be creepy, but these people are being creepily paranoid and slightly ignorant. An old piece of advice is to consider email (any email) about as secure as a message on a postcard. Another, slightly newer piece of advice is that a gigabyte-sized spambox will quickly prove necessary. And there’s even a good thing about the ads: spammers now have to deal with ads for competing products in their own spam:
    http://www.clickz.com/experts/em_mkt/opt/article.php/3399711

  5. Elin

    Jeeeze, sleeze and all that jazz….I do agree with Lars, these people are paranoid, and ignorant. That may be just as creepy, regardless of what people think of gmail.
    “never delete anything”?
    Of course you can!

    -> Move to trash
    -> Delete forever

  6. Jill

    Well, actually, Google doesn’t exactly delete mail when you delete it: “Because we keep back-up copies of data for the purposes of recovery from errors or system failure, residual copies of email may remain on our systems for some time, even after you have deleted messages from your mailbox or after the termination of your account.” http://gmail.google.com/gmail/help/privacy.html

    I know. My employer has or may have records of all my email to and from my work address and where I surf, my ISP has records of my private email and might have records of where I surf, I allow cookies in my browser and there is no doubt a LOT of data about me floating around the internet. Heck, blogging isn’t exactly STOPPING people collect information about me.

    Google’s “one ring to bind them all” strategies of world wide web domination worry me, though. I have a Blogger account, and cookies are on in my browser, so they can already assign a real identity to every search I do, so I guess I’ve already sold my soul, and certainly I would prefer to keep many of my searches private. I know blogging is public, that I can deal with. Emails contain much more private information – and there’s a huge difference, Lars, between email and postcards. People being able to intercept and read occasional emails doesn’t bother me. Having a large portion of my private correspondence in a DATABASE along with my web searches, my blogging, my social network (Orkut is also on Google’s servers) and so on DOES bother me. It’s not that my email’s all that interesting, it’s just that, well, WHY do you think they want to collect all that information? It’s USEFUL to them!

    It’s when databases are combined they’re powerful. And that means they can be used for bad as well as for good.

    Mind you, the CIA and etterretningstjenesten probably already have huge files on all of us anyway, so why bother, huh?
    Knitting listservs I wouldn’t worry about.

  7. Michelle

    Hm. A large portion of my email gets forwarded to my gmail account. I guess if you’re going to use a hosted service – especially one that can collect information on the user – there’s a certain amount of trust involved, so I suppose my forwarding a lot of my mail to gmail says that I trust google quite a bit. 🙂

    I do wonder why google wants to collect all this information. In the end I guess I’m not overly concerned with bots scanning my mail – but I trust that this company is not going to do anything toooo horrible with the information they collect. At least not anything that credit card companies, survey companies, and other organizations aren’t doing already.

    Wonder if I’ll end up eating my words later when something I gmailed decades earlier comes back to bite me in the rear. 😉

  8. trond

    “At least not anything that credit card companies, survey companies, and other organizations aren‚Äôt doing already.” – well that doesn’t justify anything. DoubleClick proved not to care too much about privacy a few years ago, and companies like Burst!Media are in the process of improving their targeting (advertisements). This doesn’t mean that we should accept it.

    The real problem with Google though, is the enormous volume of information they have access to. Plus, after the 2001 US Patriot Act, the US authorities may collect and investigate information (from ISPs (on users)) that is “…likely to be relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation…” – likely to be… (http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=953509&coll=portal&dl=ACM ). Bigbrother?

  9. Michelle

    “This doesn‚Äôt mean that we should accept it.”
    Trond – I didn’t mean that if you feel your rights or privacy are being violated that you should just sit back. I also don’t mean to justify google’s information collecting/collection by suggesting “it’s ok just because other organizations are doing it.” (Oops if I came across this way). 🙂

    What I meant is that in order for me to use google’s services, I have to trust that, with the information that they’re collecting on me, they won’t do anything that hasn’t already been done by others. It doesn’t make information collecting totally acceptable, and nobody should apathetically have to accept it if they don’t want to. But as for myself, I have partially consented because I want to use their tools. I think if someone has used any services, they too have also consented to give some information away.

    I can see how other people would find the vast amount of information google has downright scary, and I do agree that the potential to exploit this power is frightening. But I am saying that, at least for now, I trust that google will not go beyond what has already been done.

    Idealistic? You bet. Naive? Oh yes. I did say, “[I] wonder if I‚Äôll end up eating my words later when something I gmailed decades earlier comes back to bite me in the rear. ;)” I can only hope that it does not.

  10. LiL

    (I think that discussions on this topic are catching the process of the development of human culture in the act.)

    Like Johanka’s, it’s been my impression too that google can’t (or won’t bother to) as yet search gmail messages in lesser-known languages. I’m basing this on the fact that lot of my gmail correspondence is with family in Hungary, in Hungarian, and I hardly get any ads. Not actually a representative sample, I know – and I’ve also no idea what that means in terms of privacy and what they do with the info they have on me.

    Email hosted anywhere (deleted or not) is just information ripe for the picking. My university even has a webpage where you can request that deleted emails be restored if you deleted them by accident. When I first saw that I wasn’t sure what to think – as much as I can’t get paranoid about gmail, this sorta disturbed me.

    Then again, the only things stipulated regarding our use of university-owned technology is that we can’t do non-work-related things that will cost the university money or given them a bad name. Which leaves the door open for a lot of things, for which no one can get you either.

    I tend to think that the most productive philosophy towards all issues privacy-connected might be this: go ahead and do what you need to do with all the technology, and trust others – the system, and the authorities, and individuals – that they won’t abuse your rights to privacy simply because it’s technologically possible. Because that is as things should be, even if it hasn’t seeped into the general culture yet. It’s culture that will shape the laws in the end, and if our culture demands that our rights be respected, no matter how many places a piece of information about us is stored in, then our rights will largely be respected.

    I mean, just think how technologically secure, say, an envelope with an airline ticket or passport sent in the mail is… Something that happens all the time and gets to us safe and sound (in the majority of cases – some abuse just has to be expected and calculated for) because the postal workers, neighbors, whoever else never opens the envelope and delivers it to you unopened – you trust them to. You have to sign for some packages, but that’s not a particularly vicious safeguard. And yes, it’s illegal to mess with other people’s mail in many countries, but that’s a relatively new development in the history of the world, and isn’t even the rule in every country. Technologically it is very easy to open an envelope, or just never deliver it and walk off with its contents. It is our culture, which resulted in laws, that ensures our mail gets to us, and I rather think that this culture will eventually also bring about sensible legislation on electronically stored data and communications.

  11. Jill

    The problem with centralised repositories of information about individuals (which postcards and snail mail are NOT) is that you can store everything for as long as you want.

    There’s a story about Norwegian recordkeeping which is terrifying. I can’t remember where I heard it and I can’t guarantee that it’s true (I’d love more info, if anyone has it) but it’s certainly cautionary. It goes like this.

    Norwegians have always been good at keeping records of their citizens. Our records are so exact that today, the government sends *us* our tax returns, all filled out, and almost always all correct, and all we have to do is send an SMS back to confirm we accept it. It’s very convenient.

    Our records weren’t on computers in the 1930s, but they were detailed. When the Nazis invaded Norway they found archives on the entire population. That made it *really* easy to round up all the Jews. There weren’t many Jews in Norway before the second world war, and there were hardly any after it.

    In Denmark they burnt the records. The King of Denmark fastened a yellow star to his chest and proudly proclaimed: “I am a Jew!”. The Nazis invaded Denmark too, but it was a lot harder to find Jews there.

    I think the Norwegian king said something good too: “I am the king of the Jews as well as of other Norwegians.” But he was already in England or American and the Jews had already been deported.

    So I don’t know that I’d trust “culture” to keep us safe.

    In Norway we have person numbers and all information the government has on us is centralised. But privacy legislation makes it hard for *others* to keep information about us. We find person numbers practical. I like not having to think when I submit my tax return.

    In Australia people refused a similar system. They were afraid of privacy issues. It simply makes it too easy to track individuals. In Australia you have a Medicare number, a tax file number, an electoral role number and many other numbers too.

    In the United States they don’t have person numbers either, though Social Security Numbers seem to be used for quite a few things. One of the results is that you land on a terrorist list if you happen to have the same *name* as a terrorist suspect – say a name like David Nelson. Smart, huh?

    So, yes, I find it convenient to have information collected about me by agencies I trust – my own government. Amazon.com (yes, I know… but there are so many *benefits*!) – not too many others. Gmail? No. Not for me.

    I don’t really care whether other people use gmail or not. I just don’t think I will.

  12. LiL

    Jill – I’m not trying to convince you to use gmail. That really is a personal choice – dependent on exactly what you mention: trust.

    The only reason I’m harping on this issue is that I’m just troubled by the way the way the debate around gmail is framed – I really believe that the problem with centralized repositories of information isn’t that they exist but what people might do with them. Like the example of Denmark during WWII – social norms (I should use this term instead of culture, I guess) there made it the thing to do to not hand over Jewish citizens to Nazi authorities and to destroy the central repository of information instead. Many other countries did not and would still not do the same. Although I also think that the problem with those other countries isn’t the existence or non-existence of centralized repositories about citizens but about how people & government (& social norms) conceive of their responsibility towards individuals.

    I guess a part of me also feels like the world is already littered with info about me – I probably gave up any semblance of control over how much of my personal information exists in various databases when I got fingerprinted for my green card. But I wanted to live in the U.S. and so I accepted the consequences (FBI check, CIA check, whatever – lucky for me Hungarians are unlikely to get flagged as security risks… now there’s a debate that’s really poisoning potentially great things like Amazon’s databases or gmail.) I would prefer to be able to trust the authorities because, well, my life is just easier that way. And this means I’m really much more concerned with how social norms and laws allow authorities to use information that is already in their hands than whether or not it is in their hands. Plus I, too, prefer only to have to remember my social security number when I fill out my tax return.

  13. Lars

    Jill, I have a little bit of information:
    The Norwegian government indeed had records of ethnicity, not just for jews but for sami, kven, romani and other minorities. These were collected in the census which was conducted I think every ten years or so (the records from the 1801 census are available online at the University of Bergen, actually, and well worth looking at — I’d post the adress, but haven’t got the time to search right now). For jews, the records were especially reliable, because jews were not allowed in the kingdom until the mid-1800s. The abuse of these record by Norwegian police in 1941 to deport the small jewish minority (and the passivity of the general populace) stands as one of the black spots in national history. Hardly any European nations had a larger portion of their jewish population killed in the Holocaust.
    However, I strongly doubt king Haakon ever said anything like what you are quoting. After the war, however, he famously stated that he was “also the king of the communists” (to mend the division between different resistance groups). Even if he was in England, the people who deported the Norwegian Jews were pretty much the same police force he left behind.
    An amusing note on the person number system: If you’re a foreigner born on january 1st, you may have to change your birth date to get a number, because everybody who doesn’t know their exact birthdate are assigned january 1st. And a cautionary note: If I knew your person number, you’d be amazed how much I can find out about you (as a reporter, I have sometimes used this to explore people’s business roles, for instance). I could probably get a loan and a credit card in your name as well, at least for long enough to get you into trouble and me to Thailand or Mexico.

  14. Jill

    Thanks for the information, Lars! Glad to have bits of that story confirmed – and yes, now you mention it, it was the communists’ king he said he was, wasn’t it?

    And yes, LiL, I kind of agree with you. Though I do think that databases are so very open to abuse, and I don’t entirely trust our governments. It’s true though, they already have so much information about us all that maybe it doesn’t make that much difference..

    I gave the US government my fingerprints simply to cash a US$250 check – if you don’t have a US bank account and want to cash a US check you need to show the teller two picture IDs and give them a thumb print, which I’m sure gets sent on to some central database. So I too sell my personal information for money or convenience.

    I find it kind of creepy anyway.

    Hey, Lars, WHAT can you find out about me using my person number? What I earn, my taxes (that’s easy), my bank accounts, whether I owe child support? More?

  15. Lars

    As you said yourself, it’s the storing of information that makes it creepy. I can’t just find out what you earn, but what you have earned before, what you own (big things only, like cars, boats and houses) and have previously owned, how much you owe and probably who you owe it to, what time you paid it back, if you ever missed a payment, etc.
    Slightly creepier, I could find out where you live and where you have lived before, your family, your business partners and all about your education (including who you went to school with and where, your grades year for year etc.).
    And this is just using legal methods. With a bit of careful bluffing or some inside help, it should be quite possible to unearth your criminal record (part of it is public, anyway, but I only need your name for that), maybe even your medical and dental records.

  16. Jill

    You can legally find where I used to live, and my educational record including my grades? Good heavens. That seems – well, why would that be a good idea?

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