Gmail scans content, privacy groups warn
July 10, 2004
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Google’s free, big-storage e-mail service might be perfect for deployed GIs with large digital photos and video clips to share, but some privacy groups warn there is a catch.
The service, called Gmail, offers a hefty one gigabyte of storage, but it includes a program that scans the content of messages and sends users advertising based on words found in the e-mail.
Privacy groups have criticized the system for invading privacy and storing deleted e-mails on servers.
“I tend to see Gmail as a defective product,” said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director for the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“Yeah, you give consent for the system to extract content. But that ability is such a base level. It’s kind of like saying, ‘I’m willing accept more rat droppings in my food for a discount.’ ”
Google defends its service, noting on its Web site the process is automated and “no humans read your e-mail to target the ads, and no e-mail content or other personally identifiable information is ever provided to advertisers.”
While the service is unavailable to the public, Gmail’s large storage capacity is more than what most other services offer.
As a goodwill gesture, a group of Internet users has banded together to provide deployed troops access to Gmail, which is still in the testing phase and available only by invitation.
While privacy advocates have criticized the service, Gmail is probably no greater threat to security than other free e-mail services such as Yahoo! or Microsoft’s Hotmail, said Juliet Eiselstein, the information system security manager at Naval Station Rota in Spain.
Regardless of what free e-mail troops use, military personnel are taught to use common sense and practice good operational security.
“You have the same risk,” Eiselstein said. “What’s the difference with this one? … You can store more information.”
Marine Capt. Bruce Frame, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said there shouldn’t be anything “sensitive” in a servicemember’s e-mail anyway.
“So, regardless of whether you’re sending an e-mail on a Hotmail account or sending an e-mail on a military [Department of Defense] account or if you’re on a telephone that’s a nonsecure telephone, there’s a threat of somebody being able to possibly eavesdrop or see the information you’re sending,” Frame said.
In response to Google’s e-mail service, Yahoo! and Hotmail have boosted the storage capacity for their systems.